I haven’t done a review for some time, but I haven’t been sparked to do so until now. You, by Caroline Kepnes has left me wondering. *Spoiler alert: many plot topics covered below.*
I think I found the title via a list of novels that have surprise endings. I say “I think” because I’m not sure, and there is no surprise at the end.
“You” is a narrative in second person from the point of view of a stalker to his target (and effectively in first person when the target is not mentioned).
Second person POV is unusual to begin with. What’s more unusual is the long, long narrative with a character that just seems to be recording. He doesn’t feel nervous about his stalking research and actions. He also doesn’t feel much when he is threatened by the cop brother of a girl he’s dumped or when he’s beaten up in his bookstore by three guys, one of whom he recognizes. The narrative just records his thoughts and actions and the actions and words of others as if he is an android: thinking, planning, recording. Or numb, perhaps. I never felt he was supposed to be a sociopath because the emotions and reactions are there, but distant. I would expect a sociopath to draw blanks emotionally and to keep needing visual clues to fake responses to others, and that they would experience physical sensations normally. In “You”, both the physical and emotional sensations are numbed, as if the character is anesthetized rather than lacking in judgement.
Another oddity are the little time jumps where small important events happen and the reader is not given much detail or it is only summarized after the fact. If this were a diary and the main character was simply too busy in the moment to record until later this would make sense but that’s not the case during other situations.
This led me to believe that the author had a plan. The lack of real emotion and physical sensation plus the time jumps made me suspect that this entire story was being set up to be faked because then missing elements in his narrative would make sense. And for me these time jumps stood out because the novel is well written on a line level so I was guessing that these issues were intentional, that at some point the author was going to twist the plot and reveal that everything was only imagined.
So I read on. And on. And on. It’s a long novel and at one point I stopped to see how far I had progressed (I read in ebook form). I was only half way but I felt as if the author should start to reveal the truth because we had been meandering about in this character’s world for a very long time. Eventually we start interacting with some new characters (he starts therapy with his target’s therapist and begins a relationship with another woman, the one whose brother who is a cop) but when he breaks up with the woman and we come back to focusing on his target again I lost hope that the story was going somewhere interesting.
The surprise in “You” is that there is no surprise. I did have some sense, as in “Lolita”, of an unreliable narrator, or maybe I’m only connecting the two because the main characters have obsession in common. But maybe the time jumps and missing event detail and emotional and physical numbness are not intentional clues to an unreliable narrator but simply weaknesses in the writing.
Even if the main character was intended as an unreliable narrator, there are other elements that fall short of being convincing. The target is not fully rounded or filled out. Yes, some of the unexpected changes of mind could be drawn from real life examples and we are told she has issues, but readers need to feel that the author knows what’s going on via clues and later clarifications. In “You” the target does things seemingly at random, like people in real life that we only know slightly. This is fine for the main character’s perspective but the writer has to convince the reader that there is a reason behind these changes of attitude and interaction even if the main character doesn’t understand otherwise the reader is left like I am; thinking the writer doesn’t know the other character well enough or hasn’t built them completely enough. The main character too is missing backstory that would tell us how and why he came to be who he is, and who Mr. Mooney is, beyond just the owner of the bookstore and the one who built the cage in the basement. Like the missing details, these are mentioned but briefly and glossed over.
It is a first novel for Kepnes, and maybe the goal was never any higher than satisfying genre focused readers.
What, then, made me so interested in the story? Why did I tell my wife that I’d never read anything like it?
Writing in second person and using a main character who is a stalker without giving the reader a sense of malevolence or of a complete lack of morals is interesting. But it seems that one of the biggest attractions; feeling that the author was setting us up for something interesting to turn later on, was a misreading on my part.