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Fake by Stephanie Wood

In 2014, Australian journalist Stephanie Wood met the perfect man on a dating site. “Joe” was clever and charming, an architect-turned-grazier who, despite his wealth and connections, loved nothing more than bumping along a country road in his beaten-up truck.

Their relationship moved quickly: hotel rendezvous, minibreaks, declarations of love, talk of a future together. But as Wood’s devotion to Joe grew, so did her misgivings. Half of their plans fell through because of some last-minute catastrophe on his end. His stories didn’t always add up. Wood, a highly respected Fairfax feature writer nearing her fiftieth birthday, was reduced to an anxious, quivering wreck.

Finally, she reached her limit and told Joe where to go – and that’s where it got interesting. (For the reader, too; the first section drags a tad, since we know from the outset that Joe is a conman and have to wait for Wood to realise the same.) Now that she was no longer trapped in denial, trying to believe his excuses, she let herself do some digging. Sure enough, it was all fake: his flashy business deals, the country home he was on the verge of buying, his thriving grazier career. Even worse, he had been carrying on a serious relationship with another woman for years, feeding her the same lies and excuses.

In an attempt at catharsis, Wood wrote a magazine article about her experience with Joe, which prompted hundreds of other women with similar experiences – some with this very same man – to reach out to her. Fake expands on the story she told in that article and takes it further, going deep into the psychology of manipulative men like Joe and the women they target.

The book is at once journalistic and deeply personal. Wood’s interviews with these other women and with experts in relationships and behavioural psychology are fascinating, but even more so is the portrait she paints of herself. She is remarkably courageous in laying her own vulnerabilities bare: her self-doubt and loneliness, her past heartbreaks, her grief over being childless, the humiliation she felt over her experience with Joe, even as she chose to share her story publicly.

At one point, Wood says, she considered turning the story into a novel. I’m glad she didn’t – the truth is more devastating than fiction, sometimes – but her writing style would certainly have been up to the task. She’s a gorgeous crafter of sentences, finely attuned to the rhythm of each phrase, treating us to some stunning descriptive passages without letting the pace of the narrative flag.

One of the lines that struck me the most, however, was not written by Wood but spoken by Professor Brin F. S. Grenyer, an expert in personality disorders (which, Wood concludes, is what Joe has). People with personality disorders often feel empty, Grenyer says. “It’s a terrifying experience.” Wood, understandably, has little empathy for Joe, so she doesn’t go too far down the track of examining his terror. But I was chilled by the thought of a seemingly evil man who, underneath his bravado, was actually driven by pure fear.

Reviewer: India Lopez

Vintage Australia, $40


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