One of the first things a reader might note in You by Caroline Kepnes is the cover endorsement by Stephen King. It is a very strong endorsement; it is not on the back cover or in the first few pages preceding a table of contents; no, there it is on the front cover as it serves up a very strong endorsement of the talent of Kepnes. I kept this in mind as I read and found the endorsement, unlike many, to be completely appropriate even without the many references that Kepnes makes to King throughout the novel. By themselves, these references are clever and fun.
The second remarkable feature of this novel revolves around characters. There is Joe Goldberg, the main character who will confuse readers as he offers narration (or possible narration) from the minds of other, primarily female characters. Joe is the embodiment of an inferiority complex refusing to admit its inferiority. He measures himself against others with higher standards while despising their standards. Female characters such as love interest Guinevere Beck and her crew of Chana, Lynn, and Peach are described down to the utmost private physical and emotional detail. I was captivated by this point. Kepnes is writing as a feminist when she describes the travails of flawed females existing in a patriarchal society but she describes with great sensitivity a flawed male whose only interest seems to be asserting what he thinks is his rightful place in a social setting where it is his duty to put women in their “proper place,” subordinate and horizontal to him.
Other great character studies appear throughout the novel. Benji is a wimp by anyone’s standards, male or female. But the flawed Beck is infatuated with him much to the discomfort of Joe. Joe wants to rescue Beck from Benji’s abuse so he can further abuse her for himself in interesting, mostly psychological, ways. But how can Joe get rid of Benji? Perhaps he can do so in the same way he got rid of Candace’s brother. Joe’s earlier struggles to win Candace while getting rid of brother Joe served as a training vehicle for the epic struggle to win Beck. Then there is Sare whose name set Joe’s teeth on edge. Curtis is Joe’s not-so-faithful assistant in the bookstore where Joe works. There is no way to divine when Curtis might show up for work. Joe works at a bookshop; he doesn’t own it. Mr. Mooney owns the bookstore and Mooney’s addiction to 1970s porn is always on Joe’s mind. It is a possible threat.
I am a great fan of free books whenever possible. Next to that are Kindle Unlimited offerings. This 433 page novel cost USD 11.99 on Amazon; I was amazed that I would be willing to pay a sum so much out of my price range. Admittedly, it was the Stephen King cover blurb that did it. And I am completely happy with it even at that price. This is one of my five star, highly recommended reads that I will only recommend to a few of my best students of English as a Second Language. The modern day cultural references to social media, not to mention the references to extremely laid back social mores, would overwhelm the majority of my students. It can be difficult in a developing society to understand the importance or lack of importance of an IKEA shopping ethic.
I can’t leave this review without mentioning a few of the references to Stephen King that amused me so much. Hero and protagonist Joe Goldberg is a self-educated bookseller; no college and not a star in high school. He reads a lot so there are frequent references to what he reads and to one of his heroes, Stephen King. “Books don’t get any more commercial and anti-chap(book) than Stephen Fucking King (unless you want to talk about Dan Brown, but you can’t compare the two because Dan Brown’s not literary).” (p. 77). That comparison had to amuse King. And the comment”I love Stephen King as much as any red rum drinking American, but I resent the fact that I, the bookseller, am his bitch.” (p. 76) was a comment that reinforces the inferiority felt by Joe.
Throughout the novel, Joe the bookseller will give his impressions of literature as he sees it and this will also draw in voracious readers. In one case during a period of time, I will refer to as “the imprisonment of Benji,” Joe furnishes Benji five books, books of Benji’s choosing, that Benji must read and on which he must take a test. Joe comments on the books Benji chose. The five, with opinions, are:
“Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. He’s a pretentious fuck and a liar.
Underworld by Don DeLillo. He’s a snob.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He’s a spoiled passport-carrying fuck stunted in eighth grade.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. Enough already.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. He’s got Mayflowers in his blood.” (p. 72-73).
The opinions stated above belong to Joe. Benji chose the books in an effort to impress Joe but in fact, would not enjoy them. Benji is happy when Joe gives him a copy of the just-released Doctor Sleep (Stephen King).
This book impressed me so much up to this point (35%) that I am going to stop my review else it will become unmanageable. I have read the book in its entirety. (Note to Joe: Really, I have read the whole book and am ready for the test. Hold back on the sanctions pending your review of my test answers). Joe gets really upset at those who claim to have read a book but can’t answer relevant questions.
From this point, the book gets darker and darker. And more amazing. The ending will surprise almost all and will probably divide Kepnes readers into factions arguing about “justice.”
This is a great read that a reader should take the time to fully appreciate. It will take some work in the early part of the novel to figure out which part of Beck’s thinking is Beck’s thinking and which part of it is the thinking of Joe about what Beck must be thinking. Parse that for meaning. This is one great story that will involve the reader (at any price).