How do you separate the subject matter from the enjoyment of a book? If writing is art (and I believe it is) then one of its most important roles is to challenge us, create discussion and drive change. And things can only change when we are uncomfortable. So books that make us uncomfortable – are they good? [WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS]
My book club recently read “You” by Caroline Kepnes. It is a tale of obsessive love and of a stalker who kills without compunction.
“You” was chosen a younger member of the group (22 years old) and I was excited to read something that I would never normally choose (after all, isn’t that why we create book clubs and invite others with different tastes to join?).
Much like when I read, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver, I found myself repelled by the content, and found it difficult to separate my feelings about the content and my feelings about the book. Some would argue that alone meant the book was good. It created impact, dug into my brain and was hard to dislodge. And to a point, I agree.
But I don’t think just because the content makes you uncomfortable that it’s necessarily good.
“You” is written in second person (for a quick understanding of the difference between First, Second and Third person, visit Grammar Girl) which gives us an intimate view of the sociopath’s thought process. But does that necessarily give us meaningful insight into his character? I don’t think it did.
I think for a book to be considered a successful piece of writing it should offer commentary on something, a broader theme that relates to society. And in this vein, “You” says a lot about how easy it is to invade one’s privacy in this day and age. Joe barely breaks a sweat as he steals her phone and then monitors her emails, tracks her social media profiles and puts together a picture of her day.
Implausible plot devices
However, much of Joe’s stalking activity relies on highly implausible plot devices. Firstly, Beck didn’t have a pass lock on her phone – pretty rare in this day and age.
Secondly, when her phone goes missing (stolen by Joe) she doesn’t cancel the account, allowing her mother to continue paying the bill, which means Joe can use the stolen phone to read her emails.
Thirdly, Joe keeps tweeting from the account of one of his victims, but it’s utterly implausible that any cursory police investigation wouldn’t geolocate the tweeter within two minutes and uncover Joe as somehow inexplicably connected to the disappearance.
Fourth, the cup of urine was never resolved – a key clue to someone’s murder and it never came up again. A loose thread that was left dangling.
Fifth, the lack of police investigation in any of these disappearances is utterly, utterly unbelievable. Joe chose victims who all had no real ties, nobody to miss them and report them missing? I don’t buy it.
Finally, the existence of a strong room below the book shop that Joe manages seems highly implausible. A completely soundproof, lockable cage with a toilet in it – to store rare books? This was a vital to Joe’s brutally violent activities, but one that I kept catching on.
Did I like it? Was it well crafted? Does it have something to say on our modern culture or on young people’s society?
I’ll be honest, it didn’t speak to me. I didn’t come away with any insight into the youth culture, or into obsessive love.
I found this a very slow-to-start story. Nothing much happened for the first third of the book. Just a weird guy stalking an odd girl who has some strange friends.
But by about the second act, there is some action and the book picks up momentum. Other members of my book club talk about finding themselves empathising with Joe and disliking Beck, the girl being stalked.
And in fact, advocates of the book argue this is part of its genius, that it can get readers to root for a sociopathic killer. I can see that argument, however, at no point did I find myself in that camp. So that element was lost to me.
Sequels and movies
It seems this book is so popular that it’s being made into a movie. And there is already a sequel published. Nothing surprises me, but it does reveal my own lack of being in touch with the zeitgeist of the book reading community.
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