What’s new, folks? You may have heard of a certain New York City bookstore manager who exudes charm and dreams of living out his life like a swoony romcom. Oh yeah, and he’s also a sociopathic stalker and serial killer who will do anything, absolutely anything, for you if he thinks you’re the one. He’ll watch you, spy on your social media, break into your phone, and get rid of anyone who stands between the two of you—all to remedy your wounds and prove you belong with nobody but him. That’s right, we’re talking about Joe Goldberg, who is the protagonist of You, the 2014 psychological thriller by debut author Caroline Kepnes. In September 2018 it was adapted into a Lifetime series co-created by Sera Gamble, a TV writer and executive producer whose work includes The Magicians and Supernatural, and starring Penn Badgley as Joe and Elizabeth Lail as Joe’s love interest and aspiring writer Beck. Its popularity didn’t explode, however, until it moved over to Netflix, where it aired a second season in 2020 based on Hidden Bodies, the 2016 sequel that Kepnes wrote to You. Until Joe makes his onscreen return in Season 3, we can whet our appetite with the book I’m reviewing today: You Love Me, the third installment in Kepnes’ series that was published on April 6.
Admittedly, I haven’t gotten around to watching the Netflix show as of yet, but I can definitely attest to the unputdownability of Kepnes’ source material. You Love Me, the sequel to You and Hidden Bodies, kicks off with Joe leaving behind the big cities and settling down on Bainbridge Island—his way of dealing with getting released from jail in Los Angeles, then being forced to sign a contract that lets his ex-girlfriend Love Quinn take custody of their newborn son. In Bainbridge, he returns to his bibliophilic roots by volunteering at the public library. There, he falls for his boss Mary Kay DiMarco, flirting with her by sharing banter and the combo dish of beef and broccoli. Normally, Joe would sweep his inamoratas off their feet by resorting to abduction and murder. But that’s all part of the past. He wants to come out from the darkness at this point and forge his H.E.A. with Mary Kay—a promise he finds difficult to keep once obstacles start emerging from her life.
In her latest novel, Kepnes shakes up the scenic and insular nature of Joe’s Pacific Northwest abode with the intense chills and multidimensional characterization of his life to conceive a supremely addictive read. Maybe I’m being affected by recency bias, but I’ll even go so far as to call You Love Me my favorite installment in the series. The biggest factor: I’ve never cheered for Joe more than I did here. Kepnes, a card-carrying member of the scant group of thriller authors who are adept at creating compellingly deranged protagonists, has always been a master at employing her enormously witty voice through Joe’s first-person narration. In You, his nice-guy complex, his temperamental swings between bitter cynicism and starry-eyed optimism, and his double life as a homicidal stalker all merged to form a convincing and complex antihero with whom I could even sympathize in flashes. In Hidden Bodies, his move from New York to Hollywood saw him undergo some soul-searching that gave him a few more levels of likability despite his increasing body count. In You Love Me, his appeal deepens enough so that I’m on his side pretty much the whole way through the story.
Make no mistake—there are still times when it’s discomfiting to be immersed so thoroughly in Joe’s disturbed thought processes as he continues to look at the world through his severely warped set of rose-colored glasses. But Kepnes develops him so artfully in this threequel that I relate to him far more than in the earlier books, celebrating the triumphs he’s able to snag and cursing the monkey wrenches that get thrown in his path. You can tell he’s making a diligent effort to tame his inner beast and learn from his mistakes by being more tactful, more patient, and even trying to rein in his obsessive tendencies just a tad in his small-island home. It helps that the author is proficient at balancing the darkness and the humor in her storytelling and finding inventive ways to expand upon the foundation of her series.
The side players he meets in Bainbridge are just as believable, including Nomi, Mary Kay’s 17-year-old daughter who is engrossed in the Columbine shooting and Dave Cullen’s book on the subject, and Melanda, a high school teacher and founder of a feminist nonprofit who looks after Nomi as a surrogate aunt. Similarly to his previous exploits, Joe sets up a nearly soundproof Whisper Room in his basement to lock up anyone who stymies his quest for love. This time around, however, I don’t mind the deaths all that much. In fact, the victims are pretty terrible people, particularly one who I felt outright deserved to bite the bullet once their true awfulness was revealed. Kepnes nails the suspense element by pulling her audience onto a ride replete with twists and turns, usually ending the chapters with cliffhangers that escalate the tension and compel you to devour the book in a single sitting. In addition, You Love Me sustains the series’s knack for using the thriller genre and the author’s voice to add an element of digestibility to its perceptive understanding of the lengths we’re willing to go to rationalize the dubious motives behind our actions and the masks we wear in person and on the Internet to present different sides of ourselves to our loved ones and the public.
All of this leads up to a profoundly heart-wrenching finale that cuts a sharp left turn away from what I’ve come to expect of these novels. While I did predict it right before it actually happened, this didn’t dampen the emotional impact one bit. I certainly never would have thought the You series could take me on a ruthless feels trip, and yet that’s what You Love Me accomplished precisely.
If you haven’t gotten into the books yet, I strongly recommend reading all three of them in chronological order, even if you already watched the Netflix show. I’ve heard the adaptation deviates enough from the source material that you would be lost if you streamed the show and then tried to jump into Hidden Bodies or You Love Me without reading You first.
Bravo, Caroline Kepnes. You’ve done it again with the diabolically top-notch You Love Me. I can’t wait for the next chapter of Joe’s journey.
All my love and prayers go to you, folks. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 93/100