Book review: Pretending to Be Erica, Michelle Painchaud

I was introduced to Pretending to Be Erica by Emily Lloyd-Jones, and no surprise — the book is a classic tale of teenage con artists with a sharper edge, which is exactly Emily’s jam. (Also Emily’s bread and butter:  The second book in her Illusive series, Deceptiveis out next week.) Painchaud’s novel takes us to a pair of con artists trying to pull off the ultimate heist, a job that’s taken years to put together and pushed the girl at the star of the story to the limit as she subsumes her identity beneath the surface of a dead girl.

In Pretending to Be Erica, Violet has spent most of her life training up to be Erica Silverman, a little girl who went missing at age four. The little girl has become a celebrity, and her family has held onto the hope that she’s still alive somewhere, while the community remains endlessly fascinated with the child who went away. It’s a narrative that rings especially close to home for me; I still remember the disappearance of Kristi Krebs and how our middle school math teacher — her father — would sometimes vanish for a few days to chase down an ephemeral lead in the hunt for his daughter.

Silverman’s family isn’t just wealthy — reason enough to try to scam them — they also own a famous and extremely valuable painting. Violet’s mentor Sal isn’t interested in running a long con with the Silvermans, knowing that Violet’s more likely to be discovered the longer she stays. Instead, he’s focused on getting the painting and running, and he plucked a good candidate from foster care to make sure he’d have years to train her.

But what happens when a 17-year-old who’s spent her whole life moving from con to con, place to place, and family to family actually finds herself anchored in a real community with people who care about her, even if they think she’s someone else? It turns out that things don’t turn out quite as Violet, and Sal, had planned as she gets to know the people around her and gets out from under Sal’s thumb. What starts out as a simple teen heist turns into something more complicated, especially as we learn about the more sinister side of the teen’s relationship with Sal — traveling and working together for over a decade under his mentorship doesn’t mean he’s a father figure.

Lots of things about this book really work for me in terms of characterisation and exploring not just Violet/Erica, but the people who surround her. That includes the contemporaries who are on to her as well as those who accept her in good faith and at face value as the long-lost Erica Silverman. Though the focus of the book is firmly on Violet, the people within her orbit aren’t reduced to boring background figures who serve only to advance the plot. They’re their own people with specific goals and dreams and plans of their own, and we get to see pieces of their lives as part of a larger whole. There’s also a huge degree of variability in the characters. Though some fall a little too closely along ‘poor little rich boy/girl’ lines, their experiences really are handled gracefully, and Painchaud works hard to avoid total stereotypes.

One thing that really intrigued me about Pretending to Be Erica was that it’s set in Las Vegas, which is a town I think of as huge, soulless, glittering, and impersonal. Yet, the Vegas of Erica is a very different place, reminding me that Vegas isn’t just a front for a tourist destination, but a place where actual people live. Erica and her friends live among the more privileged members of the community, behind gated compounds and inside fancy mansions, and they attend an expensive private Christian school that makes Violet roll her eyes, but also creates a strange sense of sanctuary and smallness, too. All the students know each other and have throughout school, which makes it harder to pass as Erica even as Violet feels at home in a group of friends for the first time ever.

There are a lot of ways to play a teenage con book, and Pretending to Be Erica brings some freshness to the table. Which is good, because I feel like it’s easy to fall back on old narratives and tell the same story over and over, so when writers push themselves to explore themselves a bit more, it shows. Pretending to Be Erica reminds me of taking a train, sometimes; at first you see an ordinary landscape, and then you start to catch little flickers of something that is definitely not quite right, and then you see things that definitely don’t belong. They flash by so fast that at first you try to convince yourself they weren’t there, but then they become unavoidable: This is not your ordinary train ride, and when you bought your ticket, you didn’t sign up for what you think you did. (Don’t worry, the dining car is still open.)

What works so well for Pretending to Be Erica is that it brings together a crisis of experiences and attitudes as Violet is forced to reevaluate her view of marks and interpersonal relationships, even as she tries to retain control of the situation and please Sal. It’s layered with the expected romantic subplot, but there’s also much more going on in terms of the friendships she establishes and the hidden depths of the people she interacts with, both those who think they’re reconnecting with Erica and those who know perfectly well who Violet is.