Book Review: You Love Me by Caroline Kepnes
By John ValeriApril 9, 2021
You Love Me by Caroline Kepnes is the highly anticipated third thriller in her hit You series—now a blockbuster Netflix show—and a compulsively readable trip into the deviant mind of the uniquely antisocial, savvy bookseller Joe Goldberg.
New York Times bestselling author Caroline Kepnes is among an elite group of writers who have crafted such compellingly charismatic criminals that they’ve both transfixed readers and transcended the page, appearing on screens big and/or small. Think Thomas Harris’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan—and Kepnes’s own Joe Goldberg. While Joe’s last outing was in 2016’s Hidden Bodies, he’s since seduced TV audiences with the first two seasons of the hit Lifetime-to-Netflix series, You. Both the author—who also penned the standalone novel Providence—and her creation make their highly anticipated returns with April’s You Love Me.
As the story opens, Joe—who has left behind dead bodies on both coasts (“RIP Beck,” etc.) and now has a baby mama and child he’s estranged from—is recently released from prison and finds himself living on Bainbridge Island in Washington state, which is connected to Seattle by ferry; to his mind’s eye, it’s the real-life counterpart to Debbie Macomber’s charming coastal town of Cedar Cove. Following his previous work in bookstores and dealing in rare books, Joe accepts a volunteer position at the Bainbridge Public Library, where he reports to branch manager Mary Kay DiMarco. It may seem a mundane job by comparison, but Joe is never without an agenda and a multitude of angles.
You see, skirt-over-leggings-wearing Mary Kay has caught Joe’s eye. Not only is she a fellow booklover, but she’s committed to her community, her friends, and her teenage daughter, Nomi (who is obsessed with the book Columbine and Dylan Klebold’s poetry)—a seemingly idyllic woman in a seemingly idyllic town. Thinking she can help him to be the optimal version of himself, Joe does what he does best: he insinuates himself into her life, subtle manipulations guised as charm and concern. And Mary Kay begins to respond, opening herself up to the idea of romance with a younger man. Happy endings, or the prospect of them, are so appealing.
But appearances and realities seldom jibe (which is a recurring theme throughout the books), their incongruities increasingly apparent in a digital age where anything can be cropped or filtered for consumption. Just as Joe has manufactured an idealized version of himself, so has Mary Kay put forth only a partial picture. This is an admittedly simplistic explanation, but to be more specific would risk ruining some surprising plot points. What can be said is that Mary Kay keeps company with individuals Joe finds unworthy—and when Joe finds people unworthy, their days tend to be numbered. He is both the watcher and the watched, however, as his own movements are being monitored. (Remember the Quinns? You should.)
As with her debut (2014’s You), Kepnes tells the story from the rarely used second-person point of view; consequently, Joe isn’t just speaking directly to Mary Kay but also to you, the reader. It’s a risky gambit, but one she again pulls off with aplomb. After all, what better way to elicit our collusion than to create such a direct channel to a magnetically maniacal mind? A little rationalization goes a long way—and it’s hard not to root for such a reacher. Despite his many faults, Joe has a few moments of genuine self-reflection in which he acknowledges his own failures; such character growth is notable—though we needn’t worry he’s anywhere close to being reformed.
You Love Me is a triumphant return that reaffirms Caroline Kepnes’s standing as one of fiction’s boldest, most inimitable voices—a trait shared by Joe Goldberg, albeit to different (read: deadly) effect. While You and Hidden Bodies took on pretense and privilege in big cities, small-town toxicity and tropes get the treatment here. It’s meta meets Macomber, with all the humor, horror, and pop culture savvy you’ve come to expect. Kepnes continues to be trendy without chasing trends, which makes her both of the times and timeless.