“You” Caroline Kepnes (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

You by Caroline Kepnes book cover

Joe works in a bookshop in New York and takes it as a sign when a young woman, his type, stands in the “F – K” section, clearly braless under her sweater and asks if a book by his favourite author is in stock. He notes her name on her credit card, Guinevere, although she prefers Beck, her surname. He stalks her, discovers she has a ground floor apartment where she never closes the curtains, is a student, writes short stories, has three best friends and is sort of dating Benji. After a girls’ night out with Joe stalking at a distance, Beck drunkenly tumbles onto subway tracks and Joe rescues her. They arrange a date, but, more importantly to him, Joe has her phone.

After guessing passwords, Joe now has access to Beck’s email and text messages. From this he learns her movements, what she thinks of fellow students from her classes and even topics she discusses with her therapist. Beck’s parents divorced and she’s told her friends that her father’s dead, but he’s remarried and she can’t stand her stepmother or her much younger half-siblings. Despite this, she leans on her father for money because it’s easier than taking a part-time job. Joe learns that all of her friends are trying to talk her into dumping Benji. Joe hatches a plan: get rid of Benji so Beck will date him instead. The removal of Benji from Beck’s social circle proves easy. The dating starts well: he holds back on sleeping with her, uses her emails, texts and social media updates to learn more about her likes and dislikes.

The only downside is Peach, a wealthy lesbian who also has designs on Beck. Peach is going to be trickier to remove. She tolerated Benji because she knew Beck wasn’t really serious about him, however, Beck has feelings for Joe. Peach claims to have a digestive problem and a stalker so calls on Beck when she’s feeling ill or when she claims her stalker’s broken into her house, playing the scared victim so Beck will stay. Joe pretends to tolerate this. When he looks up Peach’s digestive problem on the internet, he discovers she has the right symptoms but seems to have no problems eating foods that should cause a problem. Peach manages to interrupt several dates and pull Beck away from Joe, persuading her to take a break from him. This break involves a weekend away at Peach’s family’s holiday home. Joe pretends he’s OK with Beck going, but drives out and holes up in a neighbour’s boathouse so he can spy on them.

So far, Joe is a confused mix of hopeless romantic and creepy stalker. He wants to make Beck happy and be her perfect boyfriend, not coerce her into being with him. He casts himself into a guardian angel role, looking out for and over her. Despite his obvious shortcomings, Joe is a compelling character and carries the novel.

However, when he sees the unsent letters she writes following an exercise her therapist has given her, the power balance changes and readers start to wonder who is playing whom. Beck had confessed to Joe about telling her friends her father is dead when he’s actually still alive. She confesses to exhibitionism – leaving her curtains open when boyfriends stay over, that she had Joe make out in a changing room and the bookstore Joe works in while the shop is still open – and talks about having “daddy issues” and struggles with intimacy. Joe discovers she’s acquired a new computer so he’s not seeing her emails anymore and has bought some curtains for her apartment so watching her is harder. Joe decides to create an excuse to see her therapist to try and find out if Beck’s current behaviour can be explained there. What Joe discovers forces him to re-assess his relationship with Beck. Will Joe’s romantic side win over his creepy stalker side?

Beck too has two sides: the ditsy student who doesn’t do housekeeping or cooking, and the self-centred manipulator who gets daddy to fund her lifestyle and tries to wreak a marriage. She’s not a straightforward victim of Joe’s stalking. She encourages him but pushes him away when it’s more advantageous to her to spend time with Peaches. Her vacillations justify Joe’s behaviour: he doesn’t know where he stands so it’s OK for him to use her phone to find out. Up to the point of the final showdown, they seem to deserve each other.
“You” is the story of an obsession. Through Joe, Caroline Kepnes explores the logic behind stalking and, by making Joe’s target the manipulative Beck, she can present issues without reducing it to a simple equation of stalker = bad, victim = good.

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