Anna Pitoniak’s new novel Necessary People has a blurb quote from Stephen King on its front cover, and one from Lee Child on its back. In fact, the first couple of pages of the book are devoted to quotes from publications like Refinery29 and Marie Claire, exclaiming how much their reviewers loved this book. Yet Pitoniak’s second novel is not as groundbreaking as it would seem.
The story of Violet Trapp, a young woman from Florida who is first lifted up by the friendship of rich, glamorous and manipulative Stella Bradley, and then oppressed by it, bears striking similarities to 2018’s highly hyped Social Creature, the novel by Tara Isabella Burton, which was supposed to be The Talented Mr Ripley meets Gossip Girl. If those were the cultural reference points for Social Creature, then Necessary People might be described as Social Creature meets 30 Rock. Much of the day to day events of the book take place inside a New York television studio, behind the scenes of a news program called Frontline.
Always the reliable, less interesting, less attractive friend, Violet gets a job straight out of college as an intern on the show and makes her way up to junior producer. Meanwhile, her friend Stella travels around the world, presumably doing drugs and sleeping with strangers. If not for the fact that Violet lives in an apartment owned by Stella’s rich family, getting a cheap rate on the rent thanks to her friendship with their daughter, it might have been that the two would have drifted apart. However, upon Stella’s return she sees her friend thriving and, as Stella’s brother, Oliver points out, feels resentful of Violet’s successes. So what does she do? She pulls some strings with a family friend who just happens to be the CEO of the network and gets a job on the show. But, in front of the camera.
Told from Violet’s point of view, the narrative positions Stella as volatile, selfish and unlikeable, making the reader wonder why Violet is willing to bail her out of situations again and again. Or, why she would want to spend any time with her at all. While the story hints at Violet’s longing to become Stella, showing her using her clothes, giving her name to men she meets in bars and so on, it’s not Stella’s personality Violet covets, but rather the privileges afforded to her by her family’s wealth.
The novel opens on a scene in which Violet is searching high and low for her friend after she doesn’t return home from a party, eventually finding her passed out over the steering wheel of her car. Naively, Violet admits that she thought that Stella hadn’t been drinking the night before. Presumably, this scene is there to indicate how far back their friendship goes and what the power dynamic has always been like, with Stella travelling and absent from their shared apartment for the first bit of the novel. But as time goes on, the extent of Violet’s contempt for Stella and her family becomes clearer. So it begs the question, is Violet lying to the reader about her true feelings towards Stella, or is she lying to herself?
Violet’s journey within the TV station, and her own personal battle with feelings of inadequacy (no doubt caused by the oft-hinted at toxic relationship she has with her parents) is truly interesting. We see her working hard, sacrificing personal happiness in the form of a blossoming relationship with co-worker Jamie, and making her way up through the ranks. Pitoniak makes some interesting observations about the workings of broadcast journalism, and has Violet investigating claims of misconduct at a pharmaceuticals company. But sadly, this idea is relegated to that of a side plot compared to Violet’s bitterness at being treated poorly by the Bradleys, her jealousy at Stella’s easy rise within the network, and her tendency to generally be a doormat.
If she were a more sympathetic character, the climax of the story might have had an easy solution. But as it stands, it appears that sweet, dull, plain Violet has actually been a sociopath all along (as if you couldn’t guess that much from Mr King’s platitudes on the cover), leading the reader to question everything they’ve been told all along. It’s hard to reconcile the idea that Violet is an unreliable narrator with the rest of the plot however. There’s not really any other way to interpret the scene in which Violet is relegated to the role of hired help during a family dinner party as the Bradleys and their guests dine in style on the meal she has made. All this does is make Violet’s behaviour in the latter part of the book feel ludicrous and out of character.
From a technical perspective, Necessary People is an entertaining and fast paced read. Pitoniak clearly knows how to use the structure of a novel to keep the reader interested. But her cast of bland supporting characters lets the novel down. All in all, this thriller takes a complicated friendship-slash-rivalry and reduces it to a story of two possible sociopaths pitted against one another.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Anna Pitoniak’s novel Necessary People is available now from Text Publishing. Order your copy from Booktopia HERE.