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'User I.D.' unlocks lives of two women

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In her new novel, User I.D., Jenefer Shute uses a ripped-from-today's-headlines plot to explore some age-old questions: What makes you you? And is it really possible to change the parts that you don't like?

Drabber-than-she-needs-to-be Vera de Sica, an English professor who is eking out a barely yuppified existence in Manhattan, has her rental car stolen on a trip to Los Angeles. Inside is a tell-tale credit card receipt and a brochure from an academic conference.

These documents fall into the hands of more-ambitious-than-she-can-afford-to-be Charlene Cummings. She is a drugstore cosmetician who is resenting her way through life in Tinseltown with her loser boyfriend, car thief Howie Hoffner.

Charlene uses the paperwork to worm her way into Vera's e-mail account and then into the rest of her life and finances. Along the way, she applies for a flotilla of new credit cards, which she uses to purchase the kind of girly bling that Vera would never dream of owning.

Plausible? Whether someone's identity could be lifted in precisely this way is a matter of some debate among computer security experts I asked. But why quibble about details?

There's no doubt that ID theft is the hot crime of our cyber century. The most common method is exceedingly low-tech: Thieves lift those ubiquitous credit card solicitations ("You're preapproved!") right out of the mailbox. Then there are the companies that are supposed to protect your data but don't. Some 50 million Americans are at risk because major corporate databases have been hacked, according to congressional estimates.

Besides, the point of Shute's story isn't the nuts and bolts of the crime. It's about the after-effects on both victim and perpetrator.

Part Prince and the Pauper, part Robin Hood, this is a witty psychological study about two women who have more in common than they realize. The story examines the ways they rebel against a modern society that reduces individuals to data bytes.

Charlene is Vera's mirror image: Where Vera is too paralyzed by her insecurities and self-doubts to reach her potential, Charlene is too fixated on gossip-magazine-fueled fantasies of wealth and fame to realize hers. You can see where this is going: Each woman has something to learn from the other.

The book's ending is improbably happy. But this novel works best if it's read as a fable, not a work of realism. Shute, a South African-born professor of English at New York City's Hunter College, is using the thoroughly modern story line of her fourth novel to illustrate a more enduring truth: about the ways in which we are trapped by fate and circumstance -- and the ways in which we are not.

USA TODAY reporter Kathy Kiely has covered ID theft legislation

in Congress.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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