In Follow Me (Gallery Books) by Kathleen Barber, a stalker and social media influencer play an unsettling game of cat and mouse that tackles deeper themes of identity, image and motives.

Audrey Miller has it all: an exciting new opportunity to work her dream job as a social media manager at the world-class Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, looks that make anyone swoon and, most importantly, a million followers on Instagram. With popularity and opportunity seeming to follow her everywhere, Audrey is the epitome of success.

“… [She] captivated people. Audrey turned every head in every room she ever entered, and people fell all over themselves to be in her presence … Audrey sparkled and that was all there was to it.”

With all eyes on her — almost quite literally — Audrey makes the ambitious decision to move away from her comfortable life in New York City. Though apprehensive, with the support of an old friend, Cat, and her Instagram followers, Audrey is confident she can make DC her new home. 

Audrey settles into her new life, impressing her managers and co-workers with her dedication to her work, tackling task after task with unprecedented fervor, all the while flawlessly balancing her online presence and social life. To Audrey’s followers, they see a successful, confident young woman who doesn’t settle for anything less than the best. 

But the life of an influencer is far from perfect and pristine. Behind Audrey’s bubbly facade hides an anxious and insecure individual who has built her sense of self-worth through others’ validation. Followers are not privy to Audrey’s scanty basement apartment and the dozens of boxes she has yet to unpack because she has neither the motivation nor the discipline to do so, nor are they aware of her upstairs neighbor who threatens and tantalizes her every day. Yet Audrey’s abysmal living situation is the least of her worries; unbeknownst to Audrey, her nonchalant openness on social media has paved the way for a follower who has been stalking her online presence for years to bridge the gap between himself and Audrey.

Thus ensues pandemonium and paranoia in Barber’s psychological thriller. With chapters alternating between Audrey, Cat, and the stalker — ominously named “Him” for the first half of the story — Follow Me forces readers to question their perceptions of safety, authenticity and identity. Moreover, the intensity in which Barber delves into the psychology of each of the characters is captivating; each of the character’s motives and desires is described with such subjectivity that it is nearly impossible to resent one more than the other, despite the moral ambiguity of the three central individuals.

EXPLORING THE THEMES OF SELF-CURATION AND AUTHENTICITY

While Barber’s attention to suspense drives the plot forward, the dynamic between Audrey and Cat deserves recognition. Audrey and Cat represent polarized versions of the self-curator: Audrey focuses her self-curation within social settings, whereas Cat hides her insecurities around her carefully crafted professionalism; Audrey sees herself as a redeemer of influencer culture, preaching authenticity and vulnerability rather than curating art for monetization, but the undeniable superficiality of Instagram nevertheless molds Audrey’s life. Though Cat’s dedication to her work is honorable, it revolves around a deep-seated fear of failure from which she is unable to escape. Despite the seemingly striking differences between the two, they both seem to be running from the very things that ground them in their character. And, most importantly, their actions evoke the question: How do we mold ourselves, so people see only what we wish them to see?

As Cat and Audrey continue with their everyday lives, Audrey’s stalker subtly inches his way into her life. Despite the dangerous and invasive methods in which the stalker attempts to profess his undying love for Audrey, his warped perception of reality is just as intriguing as it is unsettling. His admiration — as he so calls it — is shrouded by his fanatical petulance and obsessiveness to create a character that is at once disdainful and sympathetic. At the end of the day, is it so hard to sympathize with someone who craves mutual recognition and reciprocity like everyone else?

“The evidence was indisputable. She was really here, and I could think of nothing else. With every inhalation, I knew we were breathing the same thick air. With every sunrise, I knew the sun was creeping across our rooms at the same time. With every passing second, I wondered if she was nearby. She obliterated every other thought, leaving me a stammering mess during dinner with my family, an ineloquent scatterbrain on work emails. I couldn’t go on like this. She was in my city, within my grasp. I had to do something.”

Though Barber may be new to the writing scene, her second novel rivals those of veterans with its chilling suspense, dramatic irony and storyline that is as much character-driven as it is plot-driven. Barber reminds us that the Internet is a place of connection, a place where people find meaning and hope and recognition, but she also reminds us how exposed and vulnerable we all are. If readers’ webcams aren’t already covered up with layers of tape, they surely will be by the end of the novel.

Follow Me is available for purchase beginning March 25.

Kathleen Barber is a former attorney, incurable wanderer, and yoga enthusiast. Originally from Galesburg, Illinois, she is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Northwestern University School of Law. She now lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and son. Her first novel, Truth Be Told (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, August 2017, originally published as Are You Sleeping), has been adapted as a series for Apple TV+ by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine media company. Her second novel, Follow Me, is forthcoming from Gallery Books on February 25, 2020.