I consider myself a relatively seasoned reader of psychological thrillers, but You stopped me in my tracks. It is – to quote Stephen King – ‘totally original’. It’s an incredibly intense, chilling read which invites the reader into the mind of a psychopath. And I liked it.
Told in the second person, You is narrated by Joe Goldberg, a bookstore manager in New York. The ‘you’ is Guinevere Beck, an aspiring writer who innocently walks into his store, with no idea of the obsession she’s about to ignite.
“You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to tell if you’re wearing a bra but I don’t think you are. You’re so clean that you’re dirty and you murmur your first word to me – hello – when most people would just pass by, but not you, in your loose pink jeans, a pink spun from Charlotte’s Web and where did you come from?”
Their meeting seems innocuous enough, but Joe doesn’t leave it at just casual flirting from behind the counter. In the society we live in, it’s not hard to find out everything he needs to know about this girl – who prefers to be know as just Beck – from social media. Joe gleans information about Beck’s life, past and present, and sets out to put himself in her path, until a relationship begins to form between them. And then things begin to get out of hand.
This book is unusual in the way the author evokes sympathy for Joe – it’s not unique in that concept (one book I read last year which follows a similar vein is Normal by Graeme Cameron) but Kepnes encourages sympathy for a villain better than most. Joe is one of the most compelling, unique characters I’ve ever come across. On the surface, he’s a good-looking, charismatic and erudite man, but there’s no doubt that Joe is a severely twisted, psychotic character. Yet he tells his story with such humour and charm – littered with plenty of bookish references – that I couldn’t help but empathise with him. One moment, I’d be rooting for him to finally get it on with Beck, next he’s breaking into her friend’s house and sniffing her underwear, and I’d remember how this all began.
Whilst Joe is the star of this show, there’s plenty of intriguing and troubling characters in You. Almost everyone in this story is severely flawed, solipsistic and consumed with their own point of view. Beck, her friends and Joe – all of their worlds revolve around themselves, and stepping into those worlds making for a disconcerting experience. Beck in particular is fascinating – her blasé, flighty and self-absorbed personality makes the perfect counterpart to Joe’s brooding mania.
I took too long to get around to reading this novel, I only picked it up because I realised the sequel had come out last month. But Caroline Kepnes has got me now – the character she has created in Joe is so different from anything else I’ve ever read that I can’t wait to find out what he gets up to next. I’ll be picking up Hidden Bodies as soon as I can.