Book review: “Fake Plastic Love” by Kimberley Tait ’01
A strong depiction of the life of two Dartmouth graduates, soon-to-be-published novel “Fake Plastic Love” by Kimberley Tait ’01 is a read that will appeal not just to college students but also to anyone with a deep nostalgia for the past in the face of an extremely digitized future. Tait’s novel tells the story of two close friends: the narrator M., a no-nonsense investment banker who believes in the value of hard work and stability, and Belle, a whimsical lifestyle blogger who believes in the power of dreams and love. M. and Belle’s friendship is one of the story’s strongest points because Tait does a great job depicting the undercurrent of youth that draws the two characters together despite their differences.
Initially set at Dartmouth, “Fake Plastic Love” chronicles how M. and Belle meet and the beginnings of their close friendship. The two call themselves the “Lost Girls,” because each finds more comfort in the other than in anyone else. As an alumna herself, Tait renders the College in beautiful detail, alluding to quintessential Dartmouth experiences, such as canoeing on the Connecticut River, ice skating on Occom Pond and taking part in First-Year Trips. Tait also uses these details to capture the Dartmouth “bubble,” which many students, including M. and Belle, only begin to notice after leaving the idyllic streets of Hanover.
As the book progresses, the College becomes a representation of M. and Belle’s youth — and for Belle, it also becomes the place where she loses that innocence. Midway through their time at Dartmouth, Belle’s parents are killed in a plane crash, disfiguring the unflinching, youthful optimism that drew M. to her in the first place. As their time at the College draws to a close, Belle is left to pick up the pieces of her loss while M. looks toward the future, working hard and entering the recruiting process.
Tait also does a fantastic job depicting the competition often seen at Dartmouth. As M. goes through recruiting and earns a job with the fictional yet frighteningly familiar Bartholomew Brothers, a top-tier investment bank in New York City, she struggles with the predictability of her path yet follows it anyway due to a perverse desire to prove herself — a desire many students at Dartmouth share.
M.’s life at Bartholomew Brothers takes up a great portion of the novel, depicting the struggle of bankers to maintain an aura of mysterious luxury often held in the past in the contemporary age of technology. Having worked in both marketing and wealth management in New York and as a financial writer in London, Tait’s personal experience shines through in the skillful manner in which she describes the ups and downs of M.’s time at Bartholomew Brothers.
Belle joins M. in New York City, along with Chase, a fellow Dartmouth graduate and employee at Bartholomew Brothers — and Belle’s on-again, off-again boyfriend. Tait excels at illustrating Belle and Chase’s unhealthy relationship in an interesting yet disturbing manner: both characters seem more engrossed in what they can get from the other person than in any actual feelings they might have for each other.
Belle spends her time in New York taking pictures for her lifestyle blog “La Belle Vie,” a profession that Chase often writes off as frivolous. It is Chase’s constant irritation and dismissal of her that eventually drives Belle into the arms of Jeremy, M.’s best friend at Bartholomew Brothers whom she describes as “our generation’s Last True Romantic.”
Jeremy, an idealistic hot air balloonist who only works in investment banking to support his parents, quickly falls for Belle and her shared sense of wonderment with the world. It doesn’t take long for Belle to leave Chase for Jeremy, and the whimsical relationship between the two dreamers becomes one of the main focuses of the novel. While Belle and Jeremy share a similar sense of idealism, Tait does a good job establishing the contrast between the two characters, for Jeremy is much more comfortable with his identity than Belle has ever been with hers.
It is hard not to see the similarities between this narrative and that of “The Great Gatsby:” a broken young woman is drawn away from her rich, aggressive beau to an idealistic young dreamer who loves her more than she can ever love him — all of the drama witnessed by a narrator who roots for the dreamer despite knowing that his hope is unfounded. Once again, Tait writes from personal experience: her honors thesis at Dartmouth focused life as a performance in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works. Fans of Gatsby will surely enjoy “Fake Plastic Love,” but Tait still puts a new spin on an old story that will still leave readers feeling surprised with each page they turn.
With its strong depictions of life after Dartmouth and well-developed characters, “Fake Plastic Love” falls short only in its title. The moniker makes a well-written, insightful contemporary novel seem like it’s going to be a summer-beach read for teenagers. However, at its core, the novel captures what it’s like to be a 22 year old with absolutely no idea what you’re doing in the world — and the struggle of figuring that out. The simplicity of the title should not deter readers from experiencing the depths of this story and its subject matter.
At one point, M. imagines asking a young person like herself who had just graduated from college, “You will be a grand total of what you spend your time doing in life — so what do you want to add up to?” “Fake Plastic Love” asks the reader to consider this question and more, and it is worth the read for anyone who believes that dreams and reality have the potential to come hand in hand.
“Fake Plastic Love” will be published by Flatiron Books on May 9.