You know when you’re at a party, and someone hands you a free book on your way out the door? No? Well, then you’re going to the wrong parties my friend. Last week, I was given a copy of a brand new debut novel by Michelle Painchaud called Pretending to Be Erica. This YA thriller had me on the edge of my seat for the whole three-and-a-half days it took me to finish it. I don’t read a lot of thrillers but I decided lately to try reading a broader variety of books, and Pretending to Be Erica is definitely a great way to get into the genre. I was captivated by this book’s premise from the very beginning. What would it feel like to live your whole life preparing to be someone else? And how do you spend months pretending to love people you’re only planning to deceive and betray?
Violet was raised by a con artist. Picked especially and groomed to pull off the perfect heist. And now, at age 17, the time has come–Violet must pretend to be Erica, the daughter of a wealthy family who was kidnapped after kindergarten one day and never seen again. Erica’s parents are the owners of the extremely valuable Silverman painting–the Holy Grail for art thieves. All Violet has to do is convincingly play the part of Erica long enough to gain the Silvermans’ trust and make off with the painting. Then she and Sal, her con artist father, can retire from petty crime and live a life of luxury. But the plan doesn’t seem so simple once Violet is living Erica’s life.
Set in the wealthy outskirts of Las Vegas, Pretending to Be Erica explores the challenges of trying to live two lives at once–and the way those two lives begin to come together. Violet narrates the story with a unique and insightful voice. She frequently refers to herself in the third person either as Erica or Violet, sometimes depicting the two personas as struggling for control of her body. First, there is the challenge of pretending to be someone she’s not—relatable for all readers, because even though most of us don’t have a separate secret identity, we’ve all felt at one point or another that we have to hide our true selves in order for people to like us. As the story progresses, and Violet falls more comfortably into her role as Erica, the challenge becomes keeping the two identities separate—keeping Violet alive and remembering what she’s really here for. With luxurious food and clothes, a loving mother, friends her own age for the first time in her life, and the cute boy who sits next to her in math class, there’s a lot Violet is going to have to give up to pull off her heist. And finally, there’s the inescapable guilt. Violet has seen firsthand what losing Erica the first time did to the Silverman family. Can she bear to put them through that again? And what about her new friends who have put their trust in her?
While Pretending to Be Erica does contain a typical love plot, one of my favorite parts of this book was its focus on various female relationships. I enjoyed Violet’s complicated friendship with her rebellious classmate Taylor—even if Taylor did fall into the rather stereotypical goth-girl-with-a-troubled-home-life trope. Taylor’s biting sarcasm and dark cynicism provide a much needed relief for both Violet and the reader from the saccharine life in the upper echelons of society that Erica belongs to. Though they get off to a rocky start, Taylor proves that even people who may at first seem like enemies can turn out to be the best of friends.
My other favorite relationship is Violet’s relationship with her somewhat overbearing but ultimately loveable–and refreshingly sex-positive–mother. Well, Erica’s mother really. Mrs. Silverman is one of the strongest characters in the book. After suffering the loss of her only child and her husband’s decline in mental health, she still finds a way to have hope. Even if that hope ultimately blinds her from the truth. Violet’s relationship with Mrs. Silverman is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. Violet finally experiences a mother’s love like she’s never known before, but deep down she knows she’s not the child that Mrs. Silverman truly longs for.
Overall, I consider this book a terrific find that I probably never would have picked up on my own. I recommend it to anyone looking to try something new, and especially to anyone who loves YA books about tough heroines who learn and grow and take charge of their lives. Pretending to Be Erica will keep you on the edge of your seat the whole time, wondering what path Violet will ultimately choose. I won’t tell you her decision, but I will say that the ending resolves the story nicely and feels realistic yet satisfying.