[NOTE: I received this book as a Klout perk with the presumed hope of the publisher that I would love it and tweet that love with the hashtag #WhosReadingYou. I wish that had been the case.]
YOU is the tale of a man who thinks he is not merely rational and good, but better than you or I---less degenerate than the rest of us, smarter, kinder---the only man with his head screwed on straight in the whole damn world. Which naturally leads to stalking a pretty girl and locking her up and heroically trying to save her from herself for himself.
Which is fine. This sort of thing can be done well. Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie is arguably of this genre and is the most terrifying novel I've ever read and is fabulously written. Largely, the book works because I believed that I was actually experiencing the inside of Quentin's head.
Compare that to a story I wrote for an undergrad writing class. I don't remember the title anymore, but I think of it as the cockroach story. In that one too, the lead is a creepy fellow who's not so bright and has never grown beyond the solipsism of youth and who only kills because it's necessary and sensible and kind, given the circumstances. When my professor returned my portfolio, for all the love she had for my work in general, she was disappointed in the cockroach story as a generic piece of crap. I hadn't known this character was a tired trope, a cliche much in need of execution, but since then, yeah, I've seen it many many many times. It's worn out and almost impossible to do well, even if you only try to maintain it for ten pages.
This is not to say that Kepnes can't write. She's clearly talented. She's just written a kind of bad first novel.
Now look: I'm definitely in favor of ambitious failures. And this novel thinks it's ambitious in the same way a teenager who asks "How do I know that what you see as red is what I see as red?" thinks she's deeply philosophical. Kepner's book is called YOU to emphasize that the bulk of the narration is Joe's internal thinking as aimed at Beck---he's talking to her at all times within his head.
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?She's clearly meant for him and he begins to court her by following her around and learning everything about him. And not in a cute way like in The Fisher King.
It's pretty easy while reading this novel to see the balancing act Kepnes is attempting. If Joe starts seeming too legitimately cute she has him say something utterly misogynistic or to talk about watching Beck masturbate (which she seems to do all the time), and when he starts seeming too creepy it's time to talk about movies or chivalry again. The real issue comes not that Joe is ambiguous (something he should be) but that he's actually not ambiguous. She doesn't seem able to make him chivalrous and dangerous at the same time, so he's one then the other then one then the other. He's never a good guy, mind, but his character is inconsistent in terms of what sort of bad will he actually be, even though it's obvious pretty quickly that he'll be locking her up ala Room and, thanks to that violent cover, she'll die.
The sloppy execution though made it so that I couldn't get past page sixty. I skimmed a bit here and there through the end and it was pretty much exactly what I expected. Nothing impressed or surprised me.
Which is where the marketing confuses me. Is it possible that no one at Simon & Schuster realized that calling it "a perversely romantic thriller that’s more dangerously clever than any you’ve read before" just isn't true?
Unless. . . .
Here's my theory: This book is aimed at a younger, Millennial audience who maybe hasn't actually seen this before and thus might actually be impressed by it. An young audience the suits hope might be suckered into thinking this is hip stuff because it has Twitter and Smartphones and Cool Stuff Like That. Also, it has sex and young people like sex. I mean---the way this girl grinds her c**t against that pillow! Gracious.
Looking at the Goodreads reviews, I think the suits mostly guessed right. It appears that the novel is coming off as something new to many readers, and so they at least are getting the experience this #WhosReadingYou campaign has promised them. Lucky kids.
Anyway. I know I'm coming off like a bit of a hater here, but I'm bummed that the book wasn't better than it was. Although it was obvious almost immediately that it wasn't going to work for me, I kept forcing myself to read just one more chapter until I couldn't anymore.
I hope that Kepnes keeps writing and keeps being ambitious. And I hope someone's upfront with her the next time her ambition takes her down a tired road. Someone did me that favor once, and I'm still grateful.
Keep reading, Kepnes. Keep writing.