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Review: Social media-inspired whodunit exposes risks and rewards of celebrity status


INFLUENCE. By Sara Shepard and Lilia Buckingham. Delacorte. 368 pages. $17.95.

Actress and advocate Lilia Buckingham was born just months before the publication of Sara Shepard’s first novel in 2003. Now 17, Buckingham has earned an Instagram following of 1.7 million, and Shepard is a New York Times bestselling author of more than 40 novels, most notably the series "Pretty Little Liars," "The Lying Game" and "The Perfectionists," each adapted for television.

Shepard and Buckingham collaborated on “Influence,” a revealing glimpse into the instant, glamorous and ultimately precarious fame of young social media influencers and their capacities to wield their celebrity selflessly for a greater good or selfishly toward petty, destructive ends. Buckingham’s firsthand knowledge and Shepard’s masterful storytelling make for an ideal pairing in a murder mystery that also illuminates the harsh realities of cyberbullying, mental illness and the intense pressures of notoriety.

“Influence” rotates among four perspectives, beginning with Delilah Rollins'. She is navigating her new status on the influencer landscape after a video of her rescuing a puppy from a fire goes viral. Former child star Jasmine Walters-Diaz is much more familiar with living on camera. But while she is accustomed to the glitz, she has also suffered from the traumas of performing her life on social media.

Fiona Jacobs has likewise carefully curated her own public image for years, and now speaks of influencing as a “science.” Fiona struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and feels the anxiety and pressure more acutely than her peers, even as her attention to detail and desire to maintain a sense of control pave her way to fame.

With an image curated to perfection, top-dollar sponsorships and a celebrity romance, Scarlet Leigh reigns supreme over the world of influencers. But in her life of staged, scripted moments, nothing is grounded in reality. Scarlet’s narrative explores the dangers of being all image and no substance, and the consequences of aiming one’s influence toward controlling, harmful ends.

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Secrets cannot remain hidden as these young women cope with their accumulated fame. Their stories beg the question, is it worth it? When one of them is found dead, the high cost of fame becomes clear.

The intertwining storylines reveal the potential impacts of such a visible life, exploring the capacity to use the spotlight to illuminate and to champion others or to become lost in the glare. As the stories of Delilah, Jasmine, Fiona and Scarlet unfold, the paradox of social media becomes apparent: every moment has the potential to be captured, shared and made public forever, while influencers simultaneously attempt to present only the filtered aspirational highlights of their lives, concealing the rest behind a façade that cannot last.

For those unfamiliar with the vast scope of social media fame, Shepard and Buckingham offer entrance to a world that runs on deceptively innocent likes, emojis and reposts, but also on manipulation, rivalries and money. This fast-paced, unpredictable, thrilling read rewards Shepard’s established readers, while Buckingham’s candid appraisal of influencer culture adds depth and authenticity to the characters’ plights.

“Influence” invites readers to reconsider the intentions and boundaries they bring to their on- and offline relationships, as well. The potential perils and joys of social media engagement are revealed as two sides of the same coin, as “Influence” explores connections between them with genuine insight.

This creative collaboration between accomplished author Shepard and burgeoning writer Buckingham also speaks volumes about the vital importance of mentorship in fostering the development of future literary artists.

Reviewer Holland Perryman is the first student intern of the nonprofit Pat Conroy Literary Center. Jonathan Haupt is the Center’s executive director.

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