The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Followers
Followers
by Megan Angelo

Hardcover (14 Jan 2020), 384 pages.
Publisher: Graydon House
ISBN-13: 9781525836268
Genres
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Critics:
  

An electrifying story of two ambitious friends, the dark choices they make and the profound moment that changes the meaning of privacy forever.

Orla Cadden is a budding novelist stuck in a dead-end job, writing clickbait about movie-star hookups and influencer yoga moves. Then Orla meets Floss—a striving, wannabe A-lister—who comes up with a plan for launching them both into the high-profile lives they dream about. So what if Orla and Floss's methods are a little shady—and sometimes people get hurt? Their legions of followers can't be wrong.

Thirty-five years later, in a closed California village where government-appointed celebrities live every moment of the day on camera, a woman named Marlow discovers a shattering secret about her past. Despite her massive popularity—twelve million loyal followers—Marlow dreams of fleeing the corporate sponsors who would do anything to keep her on-screen. When she learns that her whole family history is based on a lie, Marlow finally summons the courage to run in search of the truth, no matter the risks.

Followers traces the paths of Orla, Floss and Marlow as they wind through time toward each other, and toward a cataclysmic event that sends America into lasting upheaval. At turns wry and tender, bleak and hopeful, this darkly funny story reminds us that even if we obsess over famous people we'll never meet, what we really crave is genuine human connection.

CHAPTER ONE
Orla

New York, New York
2015


Orla left for the bad salad place without her phone, so it took her a while to find out that Sage Sterling had finally died. Sage was found on a poolside chaise at the Los Angeles hotel where she had been living for a year—never mind the fact that she was so broke, she often tipped the staff not from her handbag but with old handbags: scuffed-up Louis Vuittons, old Balenciaga totes with half the fringe worn off. The bellhops would make a big show of thanking her, then place the purses in the lost and found.

Sage was erratic and filthy and sporadically mean, and she kept a pet ferret named Mofongo in the room with her. Yet everyone felt compelled to treat her gently, because outside the stucco walls of the hotel complex, the world was waiting, teeth bared, for her to fuck up again. So it was not strange, as the staff would tell the police later, that no one stopped Sage when she let herself into the pool around three in the morning. And it was not strange that no one disturbed her when the sun came up and she was still there, sleeping soundly. She was, after all, known for her impenetrable naps. Paparazzi had captured Sage snoozing in roped-off sections of exclusive New York bars, on a ski lift in Gstaad (she rode it around for hours), and during the premiere of her own latest film, an expensive animated adventure based on the phone game Candy Crush. (Sage played a lemon drop.) Head back, Sage snored loudly through the whole terrible movie. Someone at the premiere captured her snuffling on video. It went viral instantly, via a website called Lady-ish.com. Orla was the one who put it there.

Sage had lain still at the pool until around eight in the morning, when a towel boy watched a seagull shit directly onto her stomach. Sage didn't even flinch. The towel boy—"towel maintenance associate," as he would later correct a reporter—walked over, wondering what the most tasteful part of her body to jostle was. He saw that her lips were blue. Her eyes were still, but just slightly open, watery slivers cast down through brittle lashes. He touched her shoulder, the one directly in the sun. It was cold.

Orla was in the middle of ordering her salad when the news on the flat-screen over her head cut to an aerial view of the hotel. The shot circled its gray slate roof, hovering above the oblivious billboards on Sunset, and informed viewers that, somewhere down there, Sage Sterling was dead at twenty-seven.

The girl behind Orla, who wore dingy flip-flops with her skirt suit, looked up from her phone and said, sounding bored, "I literally thought she was dead already."

The stout Guatemalan man on the other side of the counter sighed as Orla gaped at the screen, ruffling brown-edged romaine with his tongs. He was waiting for her to choose another topping. Orla always spent a long time pretending to consider vegetables before saying, as if it had just occurred to her, "Actually, just double croutons, please."

The man in front of Orla was tapping out a missive on his phone in all caps: SAGE STERLING DEAD! Like no one would know it had happened, Orla thought, if this guy didn't tweet it.

Not that she was much different. Back at the Lady-ish offices, Orla's intern would be looking over the obit Orla had written for Sage eighteen months ago, the one she had marked with a warning: DO NOT PUBLISH UNTIL. Sage had been Orla's beat at Lady-ish for most of the time she'd worked there. Ingrid, Orla's boss, had identified Sage as a source of "bonkers" traffic early on, when a post Orla tried about her nail art drew ninety thousand views in ten minutes. From then on, every move Sage made, every boy and girl she kissed, every gown she put on was Orla's to write up. The clicks flooded in, even more so when it became apparent that Sage had a temper. Sage grabbed photographers' cameras and forced them down to the sidewalk. Sage scratched a bouncer, nearly blinding him. Sage pushed her boyfriend off his own parents' yacht. Orla received small bonuses for stories that clocked more than five million views in a day; Sage's boat rage had paid for her laptop. She tried now, very hard, not to think about what the star's death might bring, pushing away the thought of a pair of boots she had seen in a shop window recently—soft gray suede and knee-high, meant to be worn in weather that was still weeks away. Maybe months, with this heat.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Followers by Megan Angelo. Copyright © 2020 by Megan Angelo. Excerpted by permission of Graydon House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In her debut novel, Followers, Megan Angelo imagines the potential consequences of our society's obsession with social media and reality TV.

Print Article

The plot of Megan Angelo's Followers focuses on the lives of two women as they each hit a crisis point.

Readers are first introduced to Marlow who, in the year 2051, lives in a "made-for-TV" city called Constellation, where each resident is part of a 24/7 production live-streamed over a government-controlled Internet. Marlow, sponsored by the manufacturer of a Valium-like pharmaceutical, is a star with millions of followers; her every action is broadcast, and all aspects of her life are determined by her ratings. At one point, for example, she tries a wardrobe update, but when her feed becomes filled with negative comments about it the clothes are immediately spirited away by her handlers. When her sponsors react to a ratings slump by setting her life on a new trajectory, she begins to look for ways to alter her future.

Alternating with Marlow's storyline is that of Orla, a wannabe writer who earns a living blogging for an online publication aimed at women during a time closer to present day. In the year 2015, Orla and her flashy roommate Floss come up with a plan to game the system by using Instagram (see Beyond the Book) to make Floss an important "influencer"—someone who can sway a large audience simply by mentioning a product favorably. Their plot succeeds beyond their wildest dreams, making them media sensations overnight. Fame, though, has its consequences, and as Orla's life spins out of control, she's forced into making choices that reverberate far into the future.

The book is speculative fiction at its best; it takes our current society, technology and political landscape and predicts one possible future based on a very plausible trajectory. Angelo's plot is fresh and entertaining from start to finish; it also feels quite relevant, exploring the risks associated with social media that many of us are just starting to comprehend. In some respects, it reminds me of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Although Angelo imagines a different future, the two books seem equally prescient; there's this sense that the societies envisioned by these authors truly could come to pass. Followers lacks the claustrophobic feeling of Atwood's work, though, relying instead on dark humor to convey the dystopian future it predicts.

Angelo's characterizations are spot-on; Orla and Floss, in particular, are very relatable and perfectly drawn. Even the minor characters that drift in and out of the story are three-dimensional and important to the narrative. Indeed, I don't think there's a single extraneous scene or character throughout the novel; the plot is very well thought-out and flows beautifully. My only quibble is that I think the narrative gets a little sloppy at the end as the author shifts focus in the 2051 timeline to a specific society outside Constellation. There are a number of minor plot points that could use more explanation, and there's one character, introduced late in the story, that I wanted to know more about.

Followers is without doubt a page turner, one of those books that you simply can't put down once you've started. I'd recommend it for a broad audience; its themes such as privacy vs. publicity and the power of social media make it an appropriate read for mid-teens and above. It would also be an excellent choice for discussion in a group setting.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Reminiscent of The Truman Show and told in alternating voices...the tale skillfully builds to a terrifyingly believable climax...Angelo delivers a strong, consistently fascinating debut.

Booklist (starred review)
Her writing is crisp and the familiarity of the characters is refreshing. Angelo also weaves in a perspective on contemporary political decisions and the effect they could have on us all in the not-so-distant future. This is an intricate and brave story of friendship, ambition, and love and the lengths people will go to protect it all.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Endless clever details and suspenseful plotting make this speculative-fiction debut an addictive treat.

Author Blurb Abbi Jacobson, bestselling author and co-creator of Broad City
If anyone is going to explore a future version of our high-tech, internet-obsessed culture, please let it be Megan Angelo. Followers is pure gold.

Author Blurb Jennifer Close, New York Times bestselling author
How can I explain how much I love this book? Followers is an inventive, addictive, and perfectly constructed novel. It made me laugh out loud, care deeply about these characters and reexamine my Instagram habit. Megan Angelo's debut is a sharp look at social media, friendship and the lengths we'll go to in order to feel seen...it's also the best book I've read in years.

Print Article

Instagram

Instagram App on Smartphone In Megan Angelo's Followers, the protagonist uses Instagram, a photo and video social networking application, to elevate her roommate to the status of "influencer"—someone who has enough of an audience (aka "followers") that sponsors will pay them to mention their products or services. Instagram has 2 million advertisers, and with 90% of accounts following at least one business, influencing on the platform can be a lucrative profession.

Instagram started as the brainchild of Kevin Systrom (b. 1983), a Stanford University graduate who, in 2009, was working as a marketing associate for Nextstop, a travel recommendation startup (acquired by Facebook in 2010). He spent his hours after work and on weekends teaching himself how to write HTML5 code, and eventually developed a program he dubbed Burbn (inspired by his enjoyment of bourbon) that included photo sharing as one of its features. In March 2010, Systrom met two venture capitalists at a party who agreed to hear his pitch and ultimately convinced him to quit his job to concentrate on developing Burbn. Within two weeks, he raised $500,000 in seed money. Using the newfound funds, he decided to form a team to continue growing the program, and hired fellow Stanford grad Mike Krieger (b. 1986). After some initial trial and error, they agreed to focus on the burgeoning mobile platform market, and saw a niche for a social media application based on photographs. It took the two just eight weeks to fine-tune it enough to give to friends to beta test. They renamed the program Instagram (a combination of "instant" and "telegram").

Instagram was launched for iOS (the operating system for devices made by Apple) on October 6, 2010 and became the top free photo-sharing app the day it was released, with 25,000 users; it had racked up 100,000 downloads by the end of the week, and boasted over 1 million users by mid-December. Needless to say, this amazing growth pattern attracted investors, which allowed the developers to hire more staff and further refine the application, later releasing it for the Android platform as well. Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion in cash and stock, but part of the agreement allowed Instagram to continue to be managed independently. The arrangement didn't last; Systrom and Krieger quit the company in September 2018, frustrated by increasing conflict with Facebook management.

Instagram has over 1 billion monthly active users worldwide. Around two out of three 18-to-29-year-olds use the platform, and over 100 million photos are uploaded each day. Interestingly, the most-liked photo in 2019 was that of a bird egg posted on January 4, 2019 in an attempt to best Kylie Jenner's record of 18 million likes (for a photo of her daughter posted February 6, 2018). It took just 10 days to beat it (no pun intended), and by April the egg photo had over 53 million likes. It was still the most-liked picture at the end of the year, with Jenner's post retaining a distant second place.

In spite of its immense popularity, Instagram can have a negative impact on those who use it, particularly teens and young adults. In 2017, the UK's Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) conducted a survey "examining the positive and negative effects of social media on young people's health." They determined that YouTube was the most positive social networking service, and Instagram the most detrimental. High use of social media, including Instagram, was linked to increased anxiety, depression, poor sleep quality, negative body image, bullying and FoMO (Fear of Missing Out).

By Kim Kovacs

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