The Big Idea: Caitlin Starling
Some people prefer the company of “me, myself, and I”. Would that still be true if there were actual copies of yourself you could hang out with? Author Caitlin Starling brings us a new take on doppelgangers in her newest novel, The Last One to Leave the Room. Follow along in her Big Idea as she tells us how to truly face yourself.
Do you trust yourself?
Are you a good person? Do you know how you’d act in an emergency? How well do you know yourself: your limits, your desires, your fears? If you met yourself on the street, would you be excited–or terrified?
Doppelganger stories traditionally run like this: the menacing double is a distillation of the worst traits the protagonist has otherwise hidden from society, and there isn’t enough room for both to exist – either the original or the double has to die. Importantly, a doppelganger story requires contrast between the double and the original. There’s a wound to be explored through the protagonist’s struggle to be the last one standing, festering with shame or fear.
But what if your protagonist is fully aware of their flaws? What if they feel no shame? The protagonist of Last to Leave the Room is, to put it bluntly, a bitch. Dr. Tamsin Rivers is ambitious, antagonistic, arrogant, amoral– and at the top of her game. She enters the scene fully in control, and she knows exactly what she’s capable of. A predatory doppelganger, aggressive from the start, was the least worrying option I could imagine. So I gave her the exact opposite:
Tamsin Rivers’s doppelganger, Prime, is nice.
So nice, in fact, that it shoots Tamsin’s up-until-now adaptive levels of paranoia straight into the stratosphere. Even before she starts losing her memory, even before she develops agoraphobia and retreats from the world at large, the greatest threat to her existence and her sanity is very simply a copy of herself that is likeable. That cares about other people. That, perhaps worst of all, is reliant on her. Tamsin doesn’t feel shame about her own nature, but she sure can feel shame about her double’s. Seeing herself made vulnerable is enough to start a cascade of incredibly bad decisions, of the sort that make for the best horror stories.
And even with all that shame, it’s hard not to grow complacent around somebody as naive as this funhouse reflection of Tamsin appears to be. Especially when you’ve got the arrogance Tamsin has. Conversely, it’s very easy to start thinking kindness is equal to passivity. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a copy of yourself to take care of tasks you don’t want to bother with? Especially as your world falls apart and turns against you, surely the only person you can ever truly trust is yourself.
There’s a gendered aspect to it, too. Tamsin embodies a very aggressive, brittle style of femininity. She wears exquisite outfits and full face make up, gets her hair and nails handled professionally on the regular, and she uses this polished exterior as both armor and weapon. She’s the epitome of Ice Queen. Prime, meanwhile, shares Tamsin’s appearance, but her wide-eyed innocence slots her into a more stereotypical soft girl-ness. She winds up taking over domestic tasks that Tamsin mostly ignores, cooking meals and making sure Tamsin is happy. And in that domestic role, it’s very easy for Tamsin to lose track of her potential threat. Even though Tamsin should know better, she slips into reductive assumptions that leave her wildly vulnerable to Prime’s manipulations.
Last to Leave the Room, for all its scifi-thriller trappings, is at heart an intensely domestic book. If doppelganger plots revolve around mistaken identities and secrets being splayed out in the open, Last to Leave the Room shifts the point of view; it’s not society seeing Tamsin for who she really is, but Tamsin being faced with herself. Prime shifts from childlike and vulnerable, to wifely and caring, to something more familiar: ambitious and watchful. Safe. Recognizable. In fact, when Tamsin asks Prime to go out into the world on her behalf, nobody sees any difference at all, exactly as Tamsin hopes.
It’s a good thing she trusts herself. Right?