Short Take: I’ve heard this story before. A lot. But I didn’t care.
What a jolt to the senses this book was. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that was written 100% in the second person present tense (“You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam.”) The entire book is a love letter to the object of Joe Goldberg’s obsession, a young woman named Guinevere Beck, or just Beck as she prefers to be called.
Joe works in a bookstore, and is an extremely avid reader, a loner, and, well…. kind of a loser. He has no friends or family, no real hobbies other than the books, no girlfriend, and some definite control issues. Beck is also a big old mess. She’s working on her MFA, and skipping from bad relationship to bad relationship. She has major daddy issues and no hesitation in using people to give her what she needs at the moment, whether it’s material goods or validation or just a shoulder to cry on.
Clearly, these two are meant for each other, right? In a better, kinder world, where good things just naturally happen, they would meet and fall in love and live happily ever after, smoothing out each other’s edges and raising their children to be happier than they ever were. But this is our world, and in our world, desperate people take what they need by force. And Joe desperately needs Beck.
When she buys a few books in his store, they chat and flirt a bit, and he decides that she is The One. He gets her address from her credit card, and begins his twisted courtship of her by watching through her windows as much as he can. He “accidentally” bumps into her and while they share a cab, he pockets her cell phone, and uses it to monitor all of her email, chats, and so on. (Can I just say what a cool trick this was? Kepnes was able to show multiple perspectives without ever breaking the second-person voice. BRILLIANT.)
Joe uses all of this information to become Beck’s dream man – for example, she mentions a cologne she likes to one of her friends, and he starts wearing it. But Beck is still Beck, and she’s nothing if not capricious, “classic damaged goods” in her own words. She can’t just accept Joe’s love and live happily ever after with him. It’s not in her to turn down attention from other men (or women). She’s a black hole of need, who has no idea what she wants out of life, but is convinced that someone out there can give it to her, if she just keeps looking.
Obviously, this is unacceptable to Joe, who must go to greater and greater and more insane lengths to keep their relationship intact. And it’s here that the story kind of went south. It’s a tale that’s been told before. John Knowles did it fifty years ago in novel form, and there have been more movies with the exact same plot than I have room to list here. If you’ve read a few thrillers in your life, there are no surprises here.
So what was so damn compelling about a story that I’ve read a dozen times already? It wasn’t because I had to see What Happens Next (it was really that predictable). But I couldn’t put it down.
Part of it is that I loved being in Joe’s head. Sure he was a sociopath, but I found myself sympathizing with and even rooting for him at times. I was getting frustrated with Beck for her self-destructive choices. I agreed that Peach was nothing but a hindrance, and that Benji was all wrong for Beck. Then I finished reading, and still wanted Joe to come out ahead, and I have now spent the last two days wondering what the hell is wrong with me.
There are also loads of great literary references. Joe is extremely well-read, and the book is peppered with a wonderful range of authors and their works (and anything that quotes e.e. cummings is delicious to me). But far from an overly academic, head-up-its-own-butt tome, there are also conversations that take place via text message, facebook, and twitter. It’s a great mix of the highbrow literature type of the writing and the “u busy?” type.
There’s also something undeniably erotic going on, even if a lot of the eroticism is in situations that can only be described as creepy. Face it, even when Beck is enthusiastically consenting, she doesn’t know the extent to which she’s been manipulated. Can consent even exist in a situation like that?
I really have no idea how to rate this book. The disparity between the skill in the storytelling, and the trite clunker of a story, is just too vast. Since my sugar-addled brain can’t decide, I’m going to let my emotions take the wheel this time, and well… I loved it.
The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS