The first thing I have to say is I watched the Netflix series before I even knew there was a book. The series is more than binge-worthy, and if you haven’t watched it, and you like creepy, well-written psychological thrillers, you better get watching because season 2 is coming. The whole time I watched, I kept thinking did I just see what I think I saw? It was better than anything I’ve seen in a while. Dark, funny, creepy. Penn Badgley’s portrayal of Joe Goldberg, the main character, is genius. His vibe and his delivery of the voice overs is perfect. Seriously, perfect. Not since Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter has there been a more interesting character portrayed in a TV show or movie.
After watching the first season, I had to read the book.
I tend to judge books based on the writer’s style, more so than the plot. But in this case, both are brilliant. Kepnes takes a scenario that is entirely plausible – a young, pretty girl living alone, posting her life on social media, who unknowingly attracts the attention of a stalker who will do anything to have her in his life – and, using the stalker himself as the narrator of the story, instills fear, creepiness, and humour. You even like the stalker. You can’t help it – he’s handsome, charming, funny, blunt, damaged, lonely, and desperate. As I said, this comes across in the TV series beautifully. But in the book? Even better.
Where has Caroline Kepnes been all my life? Well, it turns out she worked as a pop culture journalist for Entertainment Weekly, and she was a writer on 7th Heaven, and The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She also ended up working on the Netflix adaption of YOU, and it shows. The script, including Joe’s inner dialogue voice overs, closely follows the book.
Some people say, Oh, a dark comedy about a serial killer with voice overs. Sounds just like Dexter. And, sure, there are comparisons. I compared Joe to Dexter and Hannibal myself. All three are humorous, intelligent, blunt and likeable. All three are serial killers. And You is narrated by the serial killer, like the Dexter books and Showtime TV series. But that’s where the similarities end, really. Hannibal tended to kill people who irritated him (the off-key flutist, for instance), and then ate their body parts. Dexter had an innate need to kill, but he didn’t want to hurt anyone who didn’t deserve it. He learned to never kill anyone who hadn’t done horrible things. He spent time vetting them, to make sure he had undeniable proof that they were a child molester, or a rapist, or whatever. He fulfilled his need to kill and justified it by only killing the dregs of society, the people who were hurting the innocent. In You, Joe Goldberg’s murders are the means to an end. He has one goal: to find a woman who loves him unconditionally and will never betray him. And he’ll stop at nothing to make that happen. He becomes obsessed with one specific woman, stalks her, secretly finds out everything he can about her, spies on her through windows and social media, manipulates her and the people in her life, orchestrates a romance with her, and then, when she finds out what he’s done, locks her up in an attempt to keep her from leaving him. Very different motives for these three characters, and very different writing styles from the three authors. I’ve read the first of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter books, and several of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, and while I enjoyed them all, Harris and Lindsay have nothing on Caroline Kepnes.
One of the things I really love about this book is the narrator’s voice. Joe’s insights into human nature and society, along with his references to movies and music, reminded me of Gregory House from the long gone and much missed TV series House, M.D. He talks about how Prince was one of the great poets of our time – poet, not songwriter. Kepnes uses variations on a line from Prince’s Nothing Compares to You as a kind of refrain throughout the novel. It’s brilliant. Chuck Palahniuk is the only other writer I can think of who uses refrains in this way. A thread that runs through the story and keeps pulling you back to the beginning, tying things together. Kepnes does the same thing with a line from an e.e. cummings poem:
Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.
The narration is filled with run-on sentences, too. I love this for two reasons: it breaks a rule with expertise, and when you read it, it sounds exactly the way a person thinks. Just look at the first paragraph of You:
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 know if you’re wearing a bra but I don’t think that 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?
We are immediately thrown into the spiraling mind of this character. We see all that he infers from this stranger walking into his shop. He puts so much stock into her just saying hello to him that we can’t help but feel sorry for his desperate need to be noticed. He analyses how she’s dressed and we see that he’s looking at her in a sexual way. And we get the first hint of Joe’s love of books with his reference to Charlotte’s Web. Who compares the color of a woman’s pink jeans to a children’s book about a spider? Joe Goldberg. Caroline Kepnes. No tired metaphors here, this is uber original. And we get all of this from the first three sentences.
And then, on page two:
You don’t stage Faulkner and your jeans hang loose and you’re too sun-kissed for Stephen King and too untrendy for Heidi Julavits and who, who will you buy?
Joe’s assumptions of this girl are almost immediate. He projects onto her the qualities he wants to find in a mate. Sexuality, intellect, a love of fine literature without pretentiousness. He saw her for the first time just seconds ago, and he’s already obsessed with what books she’s going to buy. We are sucked into his deranged mind; creeped out, but intrigued. And too sun-kissed for Stephen King! How perfect is that?
There are so many bits I’d love to quote from this book, but I want you to read it in its entirety. There really is no better word to describe Caroline Kepnes than brilliant. I mean, really, it’s not everone who can write an entire page on shower cutains and make it interesting. I am so looking forward to the sequel, Hidden Bodies, and to season 2 of the Netflix adaption of the You series.
Check out Caroline Kepnes