by Kyla Zhao
Release Date: January 17, 2023
Reviewed by Nancy
A working-class woman who infiltrates Singapore’s high society to fulfill her dreams risks losing everything in the process—including herself—in this propulsive novel by debut author Kyla Zhao.
Now Samantha finds herself working at a drab PR firm. Living vicariously through her wealthy coworker and friend, Anya Chen, is the closest she’ll get to her ideal life. Until she meets Timothy Kingston: the disillusioned son of one of Singapore’s elite families—and Samantha’s one chance at infiltrating the high-society world to which she desperately wants to belong.
To Samantha’s surprise, Timothy and Anya both agree to help her make a name for herself on Singapore’s socialite scene. But the borrowed designer clothes and plus-ones to every glamorous event can only get her so far. The rest is on Samantha, and she’s determined to impress the editor in chief of Singapore’s poshest magazine. But the deeper Samantha wades into this fraud, the more she fears being exposed—especially with a mysterious gossip columnist on the prowl for dirt—forcing her to reconcile her pretense with who she really is before she loses it all.
The Fraud Squad introduces us to Samantha in a scene that demonstrates her uneasiness with her job, where things aren’t going especially well for her division of the PR firm, her love of high fashion and the doings of Singapore’s social elite, and her friendship with Anya. It’s obvious that the two women are very close and trust each other despite Samantha’s understandable envy of the advantages Anya derives from her mother’s social status and wealth. Anya invites Samantha to dinner with Tim, who wants to vent over his latest romantic troubles. Because it’s an exclusive restaurant, Samantha agrees.
Zhao has a tough line to walk with Sam because of her yearning to experience life as the A list knows it. She saves Sam from coming across as shallow in part because her goal is not so much to belong among people far wealthier than she is but to write for the magazine that’s the pinnacle of the fashion press in Singapore. Samantha is also sympathetic because she’s loyal and loving to her mother, who works as a nail technician. Samantha’s father died long before the story opened, leaving his family with a massive pile of debt, some of it owed to loan sharks, to discharge. Sam’s mom hopes Sam will marry a wealthy man who can give her a comfortable, secure life. Samantha prefers to earn that life on her own, but she’s tolerant of her mom’s hopes, as many a daughter has been.
At dinner, Tim shares his frustration not only about the broken relationship but about his parents’ insistence that he stop pursuing creative interests and join the family business, one of Singapore’s most successful hedge funds. He doesn’t see himself as a money man, and the scheme to elevate Sam to the social elite is designed to show them that people’s destinies aren’t determined by their beginnings. So he and Anya set out to launch her in society by getting her invitations to exclusive events, where she’ll wear clothes borrowed from Anya. They call themselves the Fraud Squad.
I found the idea that elevating Sam socially would prove anything about Tim’s chances of making a career in the arts a stretch. Attaining social success and establishing a creative career are very different endeavors. Still, I liked Anya and Sam’s support of Tim’s hopes and Tim and Anya’s willingness to help Sam make the connections that could get her the job of her dreams.
Once Tim and Anya gain access for Sam to any particular event, the impression she makes is up to her. She has to look like she belongs and to establish connections that gain her further invitations and raise her profile. Things don’t always go smoothly, which makes the story more believable.
Little by little, though, Sam begins to turn her social toehold into a niche and then to establish a wider circle of connections that give her the exposure she needs to attain her dream job. Along the way, she makes some choices about other friends that are not endearing though the reader understands why she acts as she does.
The book is somewhat reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada (the movie, not the book, which I haven’t read) in that the heroine sets out to establish a career that involves high fashion, is sucked into the appeal and the standards of that world, and ultimately pays a price for that. The two stories are completely different, but the questions of who the heroine is at heart and what she really values are common to both.
There’s a romantic thread between Sam and Tim that’s sweet and believable. It’s definitely a subplot but figures into the clever way Zhao ties in several plot threads at the moment of crisis. That crisis has a double twist that’s painful for Sam. The way she dealt with those twists was sympathetic and reasonable.
Zhao works in the Singapore setting primarily with place names, business names (kopitiam for coffee shop), and some terminology. I don’t mind looking up a word. When I have to look up several, it pulls me out of the story and becomes annoying. While the meaning of kopitiam was apparent in context, the meanings of two or three other terms were not. I like to understand what I’m reading, so even if I think I might grasp what something is, I look it up to be sure. This disrupts the flow of the story for me. Explaining them in an aside or an internal would’ve given me a much smoother reading experience. Other readers may disagree.
The story moved well, and the characters were likeable. I found the plot engaging. Though I thought the Fraud Squad’s stated goal of helping Tim a bit unlikely to succeed, the part that would elevate Sam’s social profile and help her forget connections was logical and well executed. The twists at the crisis fit well with the characters involved, and the resolution tied everything up in a satisfying way.