Book Review: 'You' by Caroline Kepnes

It's easy to recognise Netflix's Joe in the TV series You as a construct, but does it work as well when presenting him as the narrator in the book? And does Beck become more likeable when she is idealised through Joe's eyes without the (reasonably) objective camera lens? These were the questions I had going into Caroline Kepnes' novel You -- but I ended up so caught up in the novel that I forgot about comparing it.

I liked the narrative style, a stream of consciousness that is nonetheless controlled. From the first paragraph we hear Joe's voice, reflective and inquisitive:

"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?"

Even in his initial interest, Joe is measured, observant - already comparing Beck and setting her aside from others so that their partnership is them against the world, the elite that stand out among the plebeians. As a concept she's perfect; in real life he finds her lacking:

"Days pass and I grow anxious. You parade too much and it's unsafe and it only takes one weirdo to spot you inside and decide to go and get you."

But even in his disappointment -- the "you parade too much" is cutting, blaming -- there is opportunity to elevate himself by creating delusion of him and them: he is the nice guy, the one who is concerned for her, who must protect her against the rest of the world, the weirdos he excludes himself from, and from herself.

This opening paragraph is also the first indication of Joe's preoccupation with dirty and clean, harlot and innocent. Later this juxtaposition becomes much more overt: when she's dressed up for him it's good; when things go sour it's a "slutty pink skirt." His faux-paternal attitude becomes domineering, his struggle that of the hard-done by Father who must correct the child for their own good: "and that skirt is a little too see-through, if you want to know the truth. It's going to be hard to break you ... especially if you want to dress like a fucking whore." Joe the character is an amplified controlling male, placing Beck in a literal cage to enjoy at his leisure; it's perhaps nothing ground-breaking from The Collector and other novels that depict the confinement of young women for male pleasure, particularly when the woman is more sexually confident or expressive than the man.

"The trouble with society is that if the average person knew about us -- you, alone, orgasming three times a night, and me, across the street, watching you orgasm, alone -- most people would say I'm the fuckup."

Once again Joe is clearly marking himself as not only separate from the masses, but someone who understands the society that he is cursed to inhabit -- that he understands the taboos he's breaking but doesn't feel that he should be constrained by them. Conversely, he seems to thrive on cliche storylines; although it's perhaps not so surprising, when the romantic comedies he prefers favour the male protagonist winning his conquest despite the odds, tenacity overruling the female lead's poor choices:

"I have seen enough romantic comedies to know that romantic guys like me are always getting into jams like this."

It's Joe that drives the book, just as he does in the TV series; seen through Joe's gaze, Beck is either idealised or annoying, and so it's easy as a reader to get frustrated with her, to dislike her. Joe's casualness -- in taking Benji, for example -- is almost endearing: in real life he would be terrifying; as a main character in fiction he's glib and charming.

You has been my favourite book of the year so far: it's smooth and well-written and clever, perhaps even darker than the series, and I'm looking forward to reading more from the author to see how she handles a different way of story-telling.

Caroline Kepnes is on Twitter and has a really cool website.


© 2019 Laura Maria Grierson

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