In 2014 the writer Stephanie Wood returned to what she calls the badlands of online dating. She ended up exchanging emails with “Joe”, who seemed gentle, uncomplicated and only a little bit of a dag. The emails developed into a date and then a romance that showed every sign of being love.
It’s a tale as old as time: girl meets boy, girl falls for him. But this time the boy – having styled himself as a retired architect turned rugged and enterprising sheep farmer – turns out to be a manipulative, calculating con artist.
Once Wood realised Joe was not the person he presented himself to be, she put her journalistic skills to use and investigated this strange man. She discovered others – supposed friends and colleagues and lovers – who were caught up in his carefully spun web of lies. In 2017 she published a Good Weekend story on what happened to her, and she’s now expanded on this in Fake.
Wood says she received hundreds of responses to her original article from all sorts of intelligent people who shared her bewilderment, who wondered how this could have happened to them. The book provides fascinating character studies of those who were duped, such as Benita Alexander, the New York journalist whose fraudulent surgeon fiancé led her to believe they would be married by the Pope. Ultimately it’s encouraging to hear of the shared strength that allowed people to survive the lies.
In fact, the chapters about Wood’s relationship with Joe are the least compelling, as the red flags can feel too obvious. How did Wood, a journalist, not see through the holes in Joe’s stories, his endless fabrications? Then again, anyone who has fallen in love knows it doesn’t necessarily coincide with good sense, and Wood herself says there’s truth to the cliché of hindsight being 20/20 vision.
Wood dips into the idea that we’re all supposed to end up with someone, a belief that’s become more complicated in the nebulous world of modern dating. It feels as if one minute you’re a teenager, watching with incredulity and second-hand shame as your parent logs on to their RSVP profile, and the next minute you’re an adult deleting and redownloading Tinder for the 700th time. Fake takes a fascinating look at how desire, dependency and loneliness have manifested themselves in just some of the many people who have been fools for love.
Vintage, 352pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Stephanie Wood, Fake". Subscribe here.