“Whoever You Are, Honey” Is Refreshing as a Midnight Skinny Dip — Read an Excerpt Here (Exclusive)

Olivia Gatwood's debut novel is part thriller, part meditation on female friendship and perfect for the age of AI

<p>Michael Drummond; The Dial Press</p> Olivia Gatwood (left); <em>Whoever You Are, Honey</em> cover

Michael Drummond; The Dial Press

Olivia Gatwood (left); Whoever You Are, Honey cover

Perfect for sweltering summer days that stretch into steamy nights, Olivia Gatwood's Whoever You Are, Honey (out July 9 from The Dial Press) feels like a fever dream for the AI age. It follows unlikely housemates Mitty and Bethel who have lived together in a ramshackle house on the beach in Santa Cruz, Calif. for a decade. When tech founder Sebastian and his girlfriend Lena move into the hyper-modern monstrosity next door, Mitty's drawn into their orbit.

But as time goes on, Lena's unsettlingly unreliable memory and Sebastian's controlling behavior start to come to light. The closer Lena and Mitty get, the more they're forced to confront their pasts and the secrets that lurk just beneath the surface.

Below, peek through the curtains into their world, in an exclusive excerpt shared with PEOPLE.

<p>The Dial Press</p> 'Whoever You Are, Honey'

The Dial Press

'Whoever You Are, Honey'

In the middle of the night, the stretch of sparsely occupied  beachfront properties lining Potbelly Beach Road resembles a row of gapped teeth. This is what Mitty has always imagined, at least. If a sailor offshore were awake and looking out the window of his cabin, just as he was traveling through Monterey Bay, specifically along the coast of Santa Cruz, and even more specifically New Brighton State Beach, he might notice the black pockets where the empty homes sit, broken up by the warm glow of an illuminated living room, and perhaps think of a child’s gummy mouth. 

Over the years, a number of these houses have been sold and converted to vacation rentals and summer stays, leaving Mitty and Bethel as the last remaining permanent residents in the neighborhood. They bemoan this change, of course. In a way, as the sole locals, this protest has become their responsibility. But still, there is a small part of Mitty that takes pleasure in the surprise of these revolving tenants. When she steps out for her nighttime walks, she’s exhilarated by the inability to predict which properties will be busied, which transparent evening she’ll find herself watching, which not-quite-neighbor she’ll get to know without ever having spoken to them. 

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Outside, the eucalyptus trees whisper. The sand clenches beneath her bare feet. The houses are standing on stilts, elevated at least 10 feet off the ground. As she walks, the strangers go on living above her. A middle-aged couple — she assumes they’re from Berkeley, they so often are — fleeing their fog-shrouded home for a weekend on a fog-shrouded beach. The woman grates at her heel with a pumice stone while the man flips through a digital catalog of films on the flatscreen, seemingly indifferent to his wife’s shedding body.  

In the next home, a heavy-lidded young father excuses himself from the table, while a woman slips a spoon into their toddler’s mouth. He stands at the kitchen sink, looking out. It seems like he’s admiring the view, soaking up this brief moment of solitude. But Mitty knows from her own home that at this hour, there is no view. All you can see is your own reflection, staring right back. 

The next three homes are empty; she hurries past the gap. Not being able to see what’s on the other side of those silent, sulking windows has always made her jumpy. The home she shares with Bethel is the last one on the lot, the final outpost of life before the sand disappears and erupts into jagged cliffs, making their oafish dwelling feel like a refuge. Even from afar, she can see Bethel in the window as she dries their dinner plates. Her hair is the color of oysters, eyes wide like a tree frog, frail forearms doused in sunspots that travel all the way down her lanky piano fingers. Behind her, the kitchen is baubled with apricot paisley wallpaper pinned in the center of the ceiling by a plastic chandelier. 

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Mitty pauses just shy of their lot and stares up at the house next door, a vast and geometric structure; so much glass that it almost appears to have no walls. She and Bethel have taken to calling it “the dollhouse,” joking that it looks as though a child could reach right in and rearrange the furniture. But for the last five years, the house has remained empty. So empty, that Mitty had almost forgotten it was once like theirs, wood-paneled and lopsided. It had been owned by a pair of eccentric professors who were shipped off to a nursing home by their children.

She misses watching the old couple carry their long dinner table down to the beach where graying lefties and university types would later gather around it, drinking and arguing, late into the night. She misses their persistent invitations to join, shouting up at Bethel’s open windows. She misses leaving the French doors on her balcony ajar and falling asleep to the sound of their voices, the fizzy ricochet of laughter that went on till dawn. 

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When they left, the house was promptly bulldozed, and in its place came men in suits and hardhats, gesturing to imaginary rooms and shouting out square footage. Mitty and Bethel watched the dollhouse materialize from the front seat of their living room, cursing each new wall of glass delivered to the worksite, gawking in horror as the cement truck filled the walkway with gray batter. But this wasn’t a flip like the other houses farther down the beach, some hurried renovation to be rented for $500 a night. Whatever faceless developer was behind the dollhouse was building a full-time residence, a forever home, preparing for the coming tech exodus from San Francisco. There it had sat, empty and on the market for half a decade. A glass slipper waiting for the perfect foot.

Until now. 

Mitty saw the moving trucks arrive that morning as she was getting ready to leave for work. She briefly considered hanging around to see what she could glean about her new neighbors based on their possessions. But she chose, instead, to wait and observe from the discreet bunker of this dark beach, when she knew the furniture will have already been unloaded and arranged; everything in its place. Of course, considering they have been living here for all of 12 hours, the home is still half-vacant and scattered, which leaves her unsatisfied. Heavy stacks of art books displayed temporarily on the dining table, newly unpacked trinkets from a life well-traveled — a wooden elephant from, she imagines, Namibia; a woven hat from Peru — decorating their bare pine shelves.

She wonders how a person even begins to furnish a house so large, and with so little character. Maybe that’s why they all remain so loyal to minimalism, based on the sheer fact that it’s less of an undertaking.  

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When Mitty was a child, she spent Christmas wandering the wealthy neighborhoods across town, admiring their extravagant displays. Animatronic reindeer and inflated waving Santas, holiday anthems blaring over the growling generators. But really, it was the insides of the homes she was most curious about. She wondered why rich families always seemed to forgo curtains. It was bold, she thought, to build such decadent interiors and then flaunt them at every passing stranger. 

Mitty studies the house’s bright, empty rooms, an aura of pristine silence beaming behind the soundproof glass. She’s waiting for something inside to move. But the house remains stock-still, like a showroom in a department store.  

Just as she is about to lose interest, a light snaps on in an upper window. She spots a person pacing, muted into a silhouette behind a sheer curtain, disappearing to one side of the window, then turning back and crossing again. It’s a woman — a small head with a sleek ponytail, a nervous pendulum — oscillating across the room. After almost a dozen laps, she walks out of sight. Mitty waits, tension clotting in her belly. But despite the woman’s absence, the light in the room remains. The tide rises, and white foam swallows Mitty’s ankles, thrusting her back into the world around her. She wrestles a tangle of beached kelp off her foot and begins to make her way back home.  

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As she walks, sporadically pausing to look back at the still-bright window, she can’t help but think of the zoo she used to visit with her mother. How mesmerized she was by the massive cats that skulked from one side of their enclosure to the other, shoulder blades moving against their skin like fists stretching a disk of pizza dough. She remembers the smell of her mother’s breath, soured from coffee, as she leaned down next to Mitty’s ear and whispered, They only walk like that in captivity, when they’re plotting how to escape.

It is the second week of August, the end of a windy summer, and the paper is tiled with the mugshots of four boys, barely on the cusp of manhood, their eyes wet and black like olives. Everyone is talking about it — in the privacy of their own homes, of course, their own backyards — while they shove cauliflower and Brussels sprouts seedlings into freshly raked soil. If Mitty cared at all to be tuned into the happenings around town, she’d have already heard the rumors of the tech engineer kidnapped by four of his own scrawny interns and shot in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But instead, she is consumed by a row of stout cakes behind the glass of the pastry case in front of her, at a supermarket outside the city. 

Today, she and Bethel have been housemates for 10 years, nearly a third of Mitty’s life. It’s the first time one of their anniversaries has felt like a real milestone, a decade of living beside each other. But when she considers the fact that Bethel is 79, and that most of her time on earth took place long before Mitty was born, their years together feel so brief, so unimportant, that Mitty begins to wonder if it’s worth noting at all. 

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She debates this with herself every year, second-guessing whether the tradition means anything to Bethel, who already has an aversion to most things sentimental. Would she even notice if Mitty bought something different, or returned empty-handed without so much as an acknowledgment? In the end, Mitty always decides that, whether or not Bethel finds meaning in these rituals, the cake — which will  be carrot — is an offering, an act of gratitude. 

She presses her finger against the glass. “That one.” The man lifts out the small dessert and secures it inside a  box. “You don’t want anything written on it?” Mitty thinks  for a moment, imagining all the things she wants to say to Bethel. 

Thank you for rescuing me. F--- you for keeping me. Where do we go from here? 

From the book WHOEVER YOU ARE, HONEY by Olivia Gatwood. Copyright © 2024 by Olivia Gatwood. Published by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Whoever You Are Honey by Olivia Gatwood comes out July 9 and is available for preorder now, wherever books are sold.

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