Book Review: Influence // Sara Shepard and Lilia Buckingham

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I ordered Influence the day it came out. I wasn’t sure what to expect, only that it had been on my list since I heard about it a year ago. I’ve loved the YA murder genre for a couple of years now, with my long time favourite still being One Of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus. Whilst Influence is heavily situated in the world of social media and appearances, there is also a darker tone cleverly hidden below the surface. Ironically, this supports one of the main themes in the book: that looks are indeed deceiving and can easily be curated to appear a certain way.

Influence follows four protagonists: Delilah, Jasmine, Fiona and Scarlet. All are teenage girls entangled in the not so glitzy world of social media and are all distinct in how they allow the world to view them. Whether it be the filters they precisely alter their selfies with, or the captions they use to complement their posts. Delilah Rollins is the only newcomer to the cutthroat LA world the other girls reside in (having recently moved from Minneapolis) and is still stuck in her naïve perceptions of it. Jasmine Walter-Diaz is trapped under maintaining her image of Lulu C (a well loved movie character) and can’t be seen for herself. Fiona Jacobs, under her smiley façade, is struggling with mental health issues and a haunting secret. Finally, Scarlet Leigh is idolised for being perfect, and our resident mean girl is just trying to cover up the cracks in her messy life.

From the very first page it is revealed that someone has died, yet we don’t know who or why it happened. The prologue reveals no details as to the events that pan out a month earlier, only that they revolve around a Gratitude Prom. Our narrator targets us as readers commenting on how “maybe you’d rather believe I was exactly who you saw on your screens: a girl who was beautiful, unflappable, and untouchable. And most importantly, still alive”. That’s where Influence blurs the lines between reality and fiction, because unfortunately as a society we obsess and idolise over these ‘influencers’ without realising the toll it takes on an individual. The reality of the online world is scary and social media personality Lilia Buckingham has perfectly captured and narrated her experiences. We see the hate, the stalking and the constant need to appease fans.

The novel subsequently switches between each character’s perspective. Scarlet’s perspective is arguably the most unique, with each chapter a transcript for her YouTube vlog. We see the speeches that each of her guests give, alongside the written action and fan comments after the release. I love how distinguishable each of the main protagonists are, as none of their lives are narrated the same. This was particularly useful after a busy day: allowing me to instantly delve into the story and recall what had happened prior. However, some minor characters like Chase (Fiona’s boyfriend) were somewhat shallow. Personally though these depictions feel intentional, considering later plot developments.

What really stood out to me about Influence is how it enveloped themes of OCD, body image and sexuality without being too monotonous and scripted. One of the main characters (though I’ll not reveal who) comes to terms with her own sexuality and eventually is brave enough to share it with the world. Another character is haunted by her own thoughts, as we painfully witness her deteriorating mental health. It’s overall really positive the way the authors present these ideas to a younger audience with the key message being don’t alter yourself to please other people or it will just lead to unwanted consequences.

However, the inclusion of brand names, products and apps is one failing of Influence, seeming rather overdone and rendering it repetitive to read. Alternatively, it can be argued that these descriptions add to the authenticity of the story, considering we live in society reliant upon technology. Excluding this minor criticism, the book was perfectly executed. From the relatable characters, to the luxurious lifestyles, and of course the inclusion of an elusive murder, Influence is a thought provoking journey. Even after finishing the novel, I never really knew who to like and dislike, as all the characters are fully fledged individuals you want to trust. There’s definitely many plot twists and red herrings which kept me guessing throughout and some are quite shocking!

If you enjoy Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars or other YA works of fiction, Influence is a fresh addition to your reading collection. Allow Buckingham and Shepard’s world to envelope you in the manipulation, the thrill, and the glamour of social media.

Words by Emilia Butcher-Marroqui

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