Review: You by Caroline Kepnes. Good Book, Lousy Marketing

Trigger warnings for stalking and sexual assault in the book.

(To take a cue from Pseudopod: Trigger warnings are provided solely to allow those suffering from trauma to still enjoy thrillers and horror on their terms. They aren’t a rating or inclusive content advisory.)

Caroline Kepnes’ debut novel, You, is a mixture of Gone Girl and American Psycho with tonal dashes of Goodfellas and Red Dragon thrown in for seasoning.

And some absolutely horrific (not in a good way) marketing.

Here’s the plot in two sentences: Joe is a bookseller, who meets an aspiring writer who goes by Beck, and falls obsessively for her. Emphasis on obsessively.

The plot is almost – almost – irrelevant, though. It is the writing and the characters that make this book distinctive.

The writing is where I’m reminded of Gone Girl and American Psycho – in a good way. The writing is written like undated letters from Joe to Beck, and they’re clever – almost too clever, almost too snarky and self-aware. Writers are often advised to kill their darlings; instead, Kepnes has created a book out of almost nothing but those selfsame darlings. My personal favorite:

I hope that most people at this point in time realize thatt Prince is one of the great poets of our time. I didn’t say songwriter — I said poet. Prince is the closest thing we have to e.e. cummings and people are so stupid because they don’t come in here and buy books of Prince poems.

But that’s my favorite because it reminds me of my girlfriend, not because it stands out. And that’s what makes the darlings work here. The cleverness in turns of phrase and pacing is so consistent that they quickly just are, and it works.

Remembering my girlfriend is also where the characters work as well, and where I’m reminded of Goodfellas and Red Dragon. She and I have remarked how frightening being in love can be – both in terms of insecurity, and in how our own feelings seem almost out of control. Kepnes uses this excellently in You.

In the first chapter, Joe is a mostly relateable guy, who is totally smitten by Beck… and then he naturally (for him) moves straight to sitting on the stoop across from Beck’s apartment and stalking her. Joe is not a normal or well guy… but so many of the feelings and thoughts he has are normal for someone just falling in love, just turned up a little too high.

 That’s where I’m reminded (particularly) of the film Goodfellas. Every time I’d start to empathize with Ray Liotta’s character, there’d be something to remind me that this guy was A Bad Man. Kepnes pulls this trick off well throughout most of You, and even when Joe goes totally off the rails, it’s very very easy to still understand how he got there in a way that reminds me of the best bits of Red Dragon.

The ending wasn’t quite as satisfying as I would have liked, and here’s where I’ll blame the marketing. The inside cover flap contains this passage:

Beck doesn’t know it yet, but she’s perfect for him, and soon she can’t resist her feelings for a guy who seems custom made for her. When a string of macabre accidents tears her world apart, there’s only one person she can turn to. But there’s much more to Joe than Beck realizes, and much more to Beck than her perfect facade.

Yeah, um. No. None of this. Beck is never a viewpoint character; the book is entirely from Joe’s point of view. This makes it sound like there’s a mystery in here, and there isn’t.

Sure, Beck’s got some secrets, but they’re nothing like what Joe has been keeping from her. Beck is a flawed person, but this is a story where Beck is completely and totally the victim, despite the marketing attempt to make the plot of You sound more like the plot of Gone Girl or Natural Born Killers.

I think this is why the ending was unsatisfying for me; I wanted more out of Beck; and the climax and resolution (as well as Beck herself) seemed rushed and weak after the buildup.

You is not (again quoting the flap copy) “a thriller more perversely clever and dangerously twisted than any you’ve read before”.

You does take you inside the mind of someone you aren’t, and (hopefully) never will be… but shows you how you could be them, if things were just a little bit different.

In that it succeeds very well, and Kepnes’ use of language further recommends this book.

There’s one more serious thing about the marketing: I got a review copy of this book from Klout; enclosed was a postcard with the phrase “Stalk the author @CarolineKepnes”.

What. The. Hell.

No. Hell, no. 

It’s tempting to say that this is problematic and tone-deaf marketing in a year where women have been stalked, doxxed, and threatened.

But that minimizes both the horror of the novel and the horror of stalking in everyday very real life.

  • 6.6 million people are stalked in one year in the United States.
  • 1 in 6 women and 1 in 19 men have experienced stalking victimization at some point during their lifetime in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.

The degree of tone-deafness of multiple someones to allow such a marketing tactic go forward – while marketing a book about a stalker – is stunning.  

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One Comment

  1. November 19, 2014

    Great review, it sounds like a really interesting book. I'll have to look for it.

    Regarding that 'Stalk the author'–I can easily see how someone would think, "What a clever idea!" but someone should have put a stop to it. It's just plain wrong.

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