I've been a fan of E. Lockhart for a long time, and I've always thought it was a shame that her Ruby Oliver quarter didn't get more attention. So when I heard of her newest novel and also learned that there was a book signing for it not too far away from me in November, I resolved to pick it up and get myself back on a good reading track. I admit that from the book's description, I was expecting a lighthearted but intense whirlwind of a friendship story. My expectations have since been thoroughly shattered.
Genuine Fraud is the story of one Julietta "Jule" West Williams, an eighteen-year-old girl with a knack for disguises and accents, an unusually high tendency to get into fights, and a mysterious past that she probably isn't being truthful about. When the novel opens, she is hiding out in a hotel in Mexico under the identity of her best friend, Imogen Sokoloff. At the first sign of someone who might know the truth, she immediately bolts, and the novel proceeds to go back over the last year of Jule's life to show how she got in this situation, why she is using her friend's name, and just what happened to Imogen.
The most obvious thing to note about the novel is that it's told in reverse chronological order, with each of its subsequent chapters revealing more and more about how things got the way they were and what Jule's ultimate goal really is. Names are dropped casually, with little fanfare, only to reappear in much larger ways in Jule's past. It builds the suspense very effectively, and I was constantly eager to learn more about who people were and how they'd really factored into things.
Jule herself is quite a unique puzzle of a protagonist. She admits from the start that she's done horrible things and that she feels she is unworthy of anyone's unconditional love, despite how much she desires it. She's obviously a schemer and a liar, and the very fact that she's using someone else's identity at a Mexican hotel should quickly clue you in that she's up to no good. But because of the way the chapters are ordered, we're not given the full story up front. Instead, we gradually get to know Jule the eighteen-year-old, Jule the lonely orphan who deep down just wants to be loved. By the time we learn just what's inside Jule's "mangled, strange heart," as she puts it, we're somehow sympathizing with her anyway. It's pretty much impossible to call Jule a hero, by any stretch of the word, but she's still who we spend our time with, and it's ironic that by the time the novel is done, I might have ended up giving Jule exactly what she so desperately wanted: acceptance. Maybe that was her plan all along.
The only other character to receive nearly as much fleshing out as Jule is Imogen, a charming heiress and Jule's best friend...or so Jule says. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that while Jule puts Imogen on a lofty pedestal, Imogen is a lot more flawed than she first appears. In contrast to the way Jule manages to inspire sympathy in spite of her actions, Imogen's perfect image slowly degrades the more we see of her. It's almost sad, to see Jule pay so much attention to someone who doesn't really deserve it, but then again, as things progress and we finally get to see how Jule and Imogen became friends in the first place, you get the sense that maybe Jule knew more about Imogen than she wants to admit, even to herself.
The plot is filled with all the excitement you'd expect from a thriller and does a good job of building the tension, although some of the situations seem rather implausible for an eighteen-year-old. It is established that Jule didn't have the best or most traditional of upbringings, and the methods she used to get so proficient at disguises and accents are detailed. Somehow, though, I can't completely wrap my head around how good the barely-adult Jule is at evading the police or getting herself smuggled out of a building. Maybe she really was brought up as a spy, as she likes to believe, or maybe I'm just sheltered.
Without wishing to spoil the ending, it's definitely a fitting one, and I'm not sure I would have liked to see it end differently. But after all the buildup in suspense of the previous chapters, it also feels somewhat abrupt. Part of the issue is that the way the story is told lends itself to multiple plot twists, each one more surprising than the last. But by the time the final chapter comes around, there aren't really any twists left to make, and so the finale feels a bit small in comparison to the big and proud tale leading up to it. I don't think it was a bad ending, by any means, but in a way it feels like there just wasn't enough excitement left over for it.
Even with that flaw, though, I still highly recommend Genuine Fraud. It's a suspenseful story with a determined protagonist who makes herself relatable and deserving of a little compassion through sheer effort, despite all the horrible things she does. She lives her life like she's the center of a movie, and it's one I would enjoy seeing if I could.