Book review: Imposter Syndrome by Kathy Wang

imposter syndrome kathy wangJulia Lerner is a Russian spy, carefully selected and groomed to be an asset in Silicon Valley. But Julia is not exceptionally talented or brilliant, apart from in her hunger for success. She is spotted in a Russian orphanage and recruited because she is competent but ordinary. Her handler, Leo, thinks this will both allow her to blend in, and stop her getting above herself.

Julia is given an identity heading a startup with stolen software, which she then sells to tech giant Tangerine. She joins Tangerine’s board and soon proves herself indispensable. She is living a life she could never have dreamt of, after her impoverished and lonely childhood. Then Leo shows up with a list of demands – he wants information on Tangerine users, information which the company claims to its users it can’t access. Julia knows different.

Alice Lu, meanwhile, is a mid-level technical employee at Tangerine, dealing with personal and professional frustrations. She is someone who hasn’t quite achieved what her Chinese immigrant parents envisaged for her, wondering where her life is going, how she’s going to pay her rent. She diligently performs some system checks (checks which are supposed to be done regularly but which everyone else skips) when she realises someone is viewing and downloading private data. She soon works out it is Julia and has to decide what to do with the knowledge.

I was totally absorbed in Imposter Syndrome. Julia and Alice are both fascinating characters, grappling with their achievements and disappointments from their very different perspectives. At the heart of the novel is the question of what it means to be someone, to be outstanding or to be ordinary.

The social media setting is apt – social media encourages us to mine our lives for incident or individuality. Alice recalls sharing a traumatic event about her past to her then-boyfriend who found it not quite traumatic enough. Julia is constantly spinning her identity as a woman tech founder, trying to project the right qualities for a woman in public life – successful but not threatening, powerful but feminine. (There is, of course, a gendered element to imposter syndrome, Tony Blair recently claimed he had never even heard the term.) Julia is living, in effect, a triple life – the public figure, the Russian spy and, most elusive of all, the ‘real’ Julia.

The espionage element of the plot also highlights contemporary concerns about privacy and data on billionaire-owned platforms. The detail about life working for a tech company – both at the top and at the lowly level occupied by Alice – was fascinating and there are some great comic set-pieces highlighting the absurdity of tech culture. It was also amusing to read that the code in Tangerine isn’t up to scratch and no one can be bothered to fix it (anyone who has ever grappled with customer service on the big tech platforms, even as a paying customer, will not be surprised).

Julia’s life as a Russian spy, and Alice’s attempts to thwart her, add a cat-and-mouse element to the plot which keep it moving, but it’s about much more. (Being a spy feels like just one more thing Julia has to juggle, along with career, family life and media appearances.) You can enjoy Imposter Syndrome as a pacy, entertaining thriller, or as a fun satire on Silicon Valley, but it’s also asking profound questions about identity. Perhaps we are all imposters in our own lives.

I received a copy of Imposter Syndrome from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Imposter Syndrome on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? For a very different story featuring a Russian spy, read my take on book vs TV – Codename Villanelle and Killing Eve.

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