Vera de Sica, a New York professor visiting Los Angeles for a conference, is scammed out of her rental car. Although it's her fault, she's relieved to find out she's not liable. That respite will not last long, because Vera's bad experience has only just begun. In the meantime, she heads home to her unhappy existence in her tiny drab apartment, working her dead-end job, and seeing her rather disconnected and distant young computer hacker boyfriend.
Meanwhile, the car thief, Howie, finds a credit card slip and a conference brochure in Vera's rental car. He passes these treasures to his girlfriend, Charlene, who livens up her monotonous existence by messing up people via the Internet. The found credit card slip and brochure are tickets for Charlene to ride straight into Vera's life.
In very short order, Charlene has Vera's Social Security number --- "The keys to the kingdom. The Open Sesame. The Decoder Ring." She also easily obtains Vera's credit reports, address, bank account, employer name, and even the name of her dead cat. Now Charlene can indulge in her vendetta against the system, particularly against someone who owns property, pays her bills, graduated from college, and has a profession. And so Charlene sets out to destroy Vera, starting with what she calls "taking Vera shopping."
As she maliciously burns through Vera's assets and more, Charlene begins to identify less with her own life as a cosmetics counter saleswoman and more with the life she imagines Vera leads. In fact, Charlene starts referring to herself as "Vera" in her own mind, almost believing that she actually is the other woman. Charlene has another motive besides pure greed to become someone else. She realizes that her continued relationship with the abusive and criminally creative Howie will, sooner or later, land both of them in prison thanks to Howie's risk-taking maneuvers.
Meanwhile, Vera's unsatisfactory life is becoming even more so. Her job is soon to be terminated. She focuses on her boyfriend's faults instead of his virtues. She not only has to spend hours of every day dealing with the enormous and unrelenting debt being piled up by the new Vera (Charlene), but she also ponders her own identity: Is it a sum of her easily hijacked passwords, Social Security number, e-mail account, and credit cards? Has she been an imposter all this time?
Charlene and Vera's lives are parallel in many ways: both live in a rundown apartment they hate, both have a boyfriend who is self-absorbed, both are dissatisfied with their status, and both suffer from aching feet. They feel they are going nowhere, and long for different lives.
I was riveted by this book. The characters are right on, the humor is black, and the ending is surprising and satisfying. Although Vera and Charlene's introspection slowed the action a bit at times, the pace was generally rapid and terrifying. Most of all, this was an eye-opening read, starting with facts accompanying the book: personal identity theft is the U.S.'s fastest-growing crime, affecting over 10 million Americans per year. Most victims aren't aware they've been targeted until they're denied loans or credit, or they receive demands for payments they know nothing about. Anyone can become a victim, making this compelling piece of fiction an urgent cautionary tale.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 24, 2011