Single, childless and over 40, former Good Weekend magazine journalist Stephanie Wood is open to the idea of finding a partner when she is matched with “Joe” on a dating app.

Despite having early reservations, there’s something about the former Sydney architect turned sheep farmer that quickly wins her over. As their relationship unfolds, Joe proves to be sweet and romantic. He talks about their future together. He can put apostrophes in the right place.

He also comes up with elaborate excuses for cancelling dates – a truck transporting some of his sheep had tipped over, he explains, spinning the tale out across dozens of text messages over many hours. His dog has been bitten by a snake. His ex-wife has kidnapped his children. At other times, he ghosts Stephanie.

As less and less about Joe’s stories seems to add up, Stephanie becomes crippled by anxiety. She doesn’t know what to believe anymore. She can’t sleep. Eventually, after 15 months together, she ends the relationship.

It’s then that Stephanie turns her journalistic skills to unravelling Joe’s complicated web of lies, discovering, among other things, that he had been seeing another woman all along.

What sets Stephanie’s story apart from other similar stories, such as the wonderfully voyeuristic Dirty John podcast, is that she tells it in the context of a broader investigation into romantic scammers and “serial fabulists”. During the course of this investigation, she talked with psychologists, experts on love and other women who had fallen foul of manipulative con artists, such as former NBC producer Benita Alexander, who was scammed by celebrity surgeon Paolo Macchiarini.

Stephanie’s pain and humiliation are often heartbreakingly raw, but by the end of the book you get the feeling that she’ll be okay. And Joe will probably be scamming some other woman.

Fake (Vintage Australia, $34.99)

by Ylla Watkins

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