Caroline Kepnes has written what is sure to be a controversial book. It’s a thriller that is narrated from the point of view of a stalker.
Let’s bitch it out…
The description for ‘You’, which is out today, includes the following line:
A chilling account of unrelenting passion, Caroline Kepnes’ You is a perversely romantic thriller that’s more dangerously clever than any you’ve read before
That’s not disingenuous, but it is fair to say that your mileage may vary when it comes to describing the novel as a “romantic thriller”. If anything You is a cautionary tale about relationships in the modern age, particularly in a world where the inclination to share aspects of your life on various social media / virtual platforms can make it very easy for people to prey on you.
You is about Joe, an employee of an independent book store in New York, who has a rom-com meet cute with a flirtatious client named Beck. He develops an immediate (and to us, obviously unhealthy) fixation on the girl, pursuing her in both conventional and unconventional ways. Along the way we learn more about Joe’s previous failed relationship and how he feels about Beck’s friends and lovers, all of whom he regards as obstacles to literally overcome in order to win Beck’s heart. The characters, even the fodder, are interesting – packed with enough detail to resemble realistic folks you might meet at a party. The fact that so many of them are vapid and superficial may be a turn off to older readers who already struggle to understand twenty-somethings, but there’s a ring of authenticity in the way, for example, Beck says one thing and then writes the opposite.
The writing itself is appropriately confessional (a given considering it is in the first person). It is also witty, caustic and fast-paced. Unsurprisingly we come to know Joe the best and while he may be a complete psychopath, I found his observations of people remarkably familiar. I have no doubt that this was Kepnes’ intention; You may be Joe’s voice, but you can almost feel Kepnes cackling with glee behind the keyboard as she types all of the things we feel about annoying people coming out of the mouth of a stalker.
One of the appeals of the book is the fascination of trying to understand Joe’s warped understanding of the world. He’s completely normal in most encounters – it’s just his interior monologue that reveals him to be completely abnormal. I loved how he bristles in offence to being called a stalker, even as he gathers an increasingly large collection of Beck’s soiled clothing in a large hole in his apartment wall. Kepnes treads a thin line with her deranged protagonist; even at his most likable, he’s only a few lines away from a vulgar sexual aside that reminds you of his true nature. It’s a narrative tactic that is extremely well-executed – we empathize with Joe enough to bond with him, even as we’re disgusted by his intentions. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself plowing through the chapters, stopping only to pause and shower off the “ick” feeling.
For me the most interesting part of the novel is its portrayal of Beck. As the object of Joe’s affection, Beck is placed on a pedestal and held at arm’s length. We come to know her primarily through her emails and texts, which Joe gains access to in one of the book’s least plausible moments. The result, however, is that we have unfiltered access to Beck’s point of view – or at least the one that she shares with the other people in her life. Shockingly enough, she’s also not a nice person. I struggled to rationalize my feelings for the poor girl as she slowly but surely succumbs to Joe’s games because there were a lot of times that Beck, while undeserving of Joe’s “affection”, certainly doesn’t abide by the traditional standards of a damsel in distress. In so many other tales she would be a lovely, honest girl who exhibits symptoms of All-American Girl syndrome. Instead Beck is a bit reprehensible: she’s also a liar and a cheat. She’s shallow and materialistic. Hell, she’s even a bad friend and (worst of all) a truly terrible Twitter user. It’s almost refreshing that Beck isn’t perfect because it complicates the power dynamic between stalker and victim – the romance of the logline can be construed because in reality the pair kinda sorta deserve each other.
One of the take-aways from the novel is a wry observation about modern dating and how much to share (and with whom) on social media. You is as much a cautionary tale as it is a character study. The book is essentially a contrast in approaches to pursuing what you want in life. Beck waffles throughout You, making a variety of bad decisions and harming everyone in her life. Joe commits just as many sins, but somehow manages to win us over (to a certain extent) with his single-minded pursuit of what he wants. In many ways he’s the character you want to root for, until you realize that doing so means hoping he’s successful in manipulating, murdering and abducting a young woman. It’s complicated…
It’s tempting to unpack the twists and turns in greater detail, but it is better to discover the book for yourself. You is a fun, nasty little thriller that does indeed brandish a (twisted) romantic side and it is fast paced enough that you can knock it back in a weekend. What more can you ask for as we prepare for the chillier weather of fall?
- If you just read the plot description of Kepnes’ tale, you might mistake it for a a run of the mill James Patterson-style mystery thriller. Although they share similar genre tropes, Joe would probably commit a murder if he knew his tale was being equated with pulpy mass-marketed books like Patterson’s. (Dan Brown, however, he might accept).
- My favourite aspect of the book are the increasingly unhinged series of tweets that Joe fakes to disguise the disappearance of a character. Hashtags have never been so inappropriate.
- While I did really enjoy the book, I’ll clarify that You isn’t perfect (the final “obstacle” lags more than it should). With that said, I do think that the ending is a huge talking point and I’ll be interested to see what people think of it. Can it can be construed as a “happy ending”? I’m still mulling it over…
You is available in-store and online now. Thanks to NetGallery and Atria/Emily Bestler Books for granting me early access in exchange for a review.