Liar, Dreamer, Thief by Maria Dong

“Once upon a time, there was a girl with a vivid imagination, one who was not entirely sane. She was afraid of many things that weren’t real, but she didn’t tell anyone. They would’ve sent her far, far away, and she wasn’t ready to go.”

Liar, Dreamer, Thief had all of the ingredients to be a unique mystery-thriller exploring mental health, but sadly this novel eventually adopted a rather tired formula as it devolved into the typical suspense story where we follow an unreliable woman taking on the role of amateur detective (sometimes to discover what really happened to a friend of hers, who went missing or died, sometimes after she witnesses something troubling, sometimes after she inherited a house or something, etc). Worst still, it relies on the same twist as a lot of these novels do. Maybe if this book had been mid from the very start, I wouldn’t have felt so disappointed, but when I was about ⅓ in, I genuinely thought this was going to be a 4, 5 stars even, read. Not only is too much importance given to that tired twist, but it felt like the middle of the book was just a lot of padding, scenes and internal monologues that come across as repetitive and as if they are stalling for time.

Katrina Kim, our 20-something narrator, is precariously employed at Advancex, a “hospital revenue cycle management” company in NY, where she mostly has to deal with taking calls about people’s insurance, bills, etc. Katrina lives with Leoni, whom she found on craigslist, who for various reasons is often away, either due to work-related reasons or to take care of her ill sister. From the very first pages, we realize that Katrina is not doing well at all. Something happened in her past that resulted in her dropping out of college and being ‘ousted’ by her parents, who have not reached out to her in years. In the present day, Katrina is obsessed with Kurt, a co-worker at Advancex whom she has barely interacted with. Leoni, the only one who seems to know about Katrina’s fixation, tries to tell her that her behavior isn’t healthy and that she is acting like a stalker. But Katrina seems to genuinely believe that there is something connecting her to Kurt, not romantic, as Katrina is into women, but a kinship nonetheless. So Katrina often goes to his desk, when he isn’t around, to look at his stuff, sometimes even stealing things from him. What aggravates Katrina’s loose grip on reality is that she often views the world around her through the magical lenses of her favorite children’s book, identifying real people with characters, or seeing her life or actions as if mirroring those of the book’s protagonist. Katrina has many maladaptive coping mechanisms, rituals, and routines, that have to do with numbers and symbols, many of them connected to that magical world. The first few chapters give us an idea of the ways in which Katrina struggles to maintain a semi-functional facade, emphasizing how day-to-day actions, behaviors, and interactions, that other people do automatically or take for granted, she has difficulty to emulate. Sadly, Advancex doesn’t seem to have a lot of visibility or awareness for disability and accessibility in the workplace. Prone to anxiety attacks and perpetually on edge, we see just how lonely and in difficulty Katrina is, yet, that doesn’t make her inappropriate fixation on Kurt any more palatable. It just so happens that after a particularly bad episode, Katrina turns to one of her more powerful rituals to regain a measure of control, her midnight trip sees her become a witness to Kurt’s suicide. Before jumping to his death, he turns to her and accuses her of being somehow to blame for this.
Reeling, unsure whether she imagined Kurt’s death or not, Katrina loses the little control she had over her life. At work, she finds several clues that lead her to discover that as she was spying and watching Kurt, he was doing the same to her.
What follows is a rather convoluted mystery, with a lot of scenes set in the workplace or in Katrina’s apartment, as we follow Katrina trying to learn more about Kurt and coming across one cryptic clue after the next. In doing so however not only she gets into trouble with her manager but she also puts at risk one of her colleagues, who has always had her back.
At first, I really liked the atmosphere of the story, and Katrina’s surreal, feverish, narration is captivating, despite her troubling behavior. I wasn’t sure if this story was going in the direction of something like Horse Girl, or The OA, or in the murkier realms of Danzy Senna’s Symptomatic or the bizarre world of Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, so I was disappointed when it ultimately went along the lines of those thriller books that are all the rage, with our ‘messy’ unreliable main character doing some questionable sleuthing, often guided by instinct more than logic/proof. While Katrina’s voice was compelling, the characters around her were very cartoonish. From her angry manager to the mean receptionist, to the cat-lady who lives in the same building as her, to the librarian she briefly came across…her colleagues too, both of them behaved in a way and said things that weren’t entirely credible. I also found that the novel tries to go somewhere dark, presenting us with a young woman who is doing things that are irrational, and dangerous even, but it ultimately cops out by making the two people with who Katrina behaves appallingly, into psychopathic villains.
While I appreciated the lack of romance, I did wish that Katrina’s queerness didn’t feel like such an afterthought, almost as if the author wanted to make Katrina’s obsession with Kurt more palatable because she isn’t in love with him…

Also, if I had to be nitpicky since a lot of this book revolves around and in the workplace, there were inconsistencies when it came to how employees like Katrina were monitored. I have a hard time believing that she was able to leave her desk and stalk Kurt for so long without drawing notice. Also, in a lot of workplaces where you have to answer emails/calls from clients/customers, those are monitored, usually for calls to see that they are resolved quickly, and you definitely can’t get away with putting down the phone on someone knowing that they will call again and bother one of your colleagues instead. Additionally, I remember, a friend of mine worked in a call centre and her breaks to pee etc were timed, so if you took longer than 5-10 mins you could be penalized. I wouldn’t be so fussy if it wasn’t for the fact that work surveillance comes into play in the story…

There were times when Katrina’s ‘other world’ seems forgotten, and when it comes into play it almost feels gimmicky.

spoilers ahead

The worst characters were Kurt and Leoni. He was just a one-note generic bad man, and I could never reconcile myself with Katrina’s obsession with him. Sure, she thinks the guy likes the same music as she does and she is lonely, delusional, and prone to obsession….but still. Leoni was even worse. I have come across this type of character one too many times. She is usually the friend or bff of the mc in these books that is super nice and supportive, even when the mc is shitty towards her, but it was all pretend. She is actually a manipulative girlboss who feels like a distant cousin to those golden-age female characters who appear meek, and innocent, only to be then revealed as an evil femme fatale or whatnot. Her motivations were all over the place, and her plan was so convoluted as to lack any sense. Plus, guarda caso, because they are revealed to be as Bad, Katrina’s stalking of Kurt, and her neglectful behavior toward Leoni, are all made moot, because they were actually playing her all along.
I did find Katrina’s reunion with her parents moving and rewarding even if I didn’t buy into how everyone was seemingly swindled by Leoni’s act and didn’t care to challenge/question her.

end of spoilers

I guess I just wanted more, from the mystery, from the characters. While the story succeeds in giving readers a glimpse into Katrina, a young woman whose spiralling mental health leaves her vulnerable to other people’s manipulations, it didn’t quite do a lot besides that. The finale was cheesy, almost at odds with the uneasy tone characterizing much of the narrative. This could have been a darker, more subversive read, but it ended up reading like yet another mystery book whose titles usually use words like ‘sister’, ‘girl’, ‘lies’, or a combination of words like ‘the other woman’, ‘the girl you left behind’, ‘the lies we told’, ‘the apartment’, and so on.

Still, it did have the makings to be something great, so I am actually looking forward to reading more by Maria Dong.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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