By Alex Michaelides, A twisty but flawed psychological thriller
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides shows you exactly what type of book it’s aiming to be from the very first sentence: “Alicia Berenson was thirty-three years old when she killed her husband.” No messing around here.
For people who like their thrillers-slash-mysteries to have twisty plots and straight-forward writing, this recent release is one to look at (but with some big caveats, so keep reading). Since its February 2019 release, it’s been climbing all over the bestseller charts and is being developed into a movie by heavy-hitters Annapurna and Plan B (their other recent collaborations include If Beale Street Could Talk and Vice).
Six years ago, Alicia Berenson, a well-known painter, murdered her husband and hasn’t spoken a word since. He was found bound to a chair with gunshot wounds to his face, and she was convicted soon thereafter.
Theo Faber is a psychotherapist who hopes to treat Alicia and uncover the mystery behind her motives for killing her husband. As they sit in silence, the main clue he has is a painting she completed. She titled it Alcestis, named after a heroine in Greek mythology who sacrifices her life to save her husband.
Book Review: the Good Stuff
Let’s start with the good stuff. The premise of this book is fantastic. I was engaged right away. The ending is surprising, even if you guess the twist (I didn’t, but some might), and the way the crucial scene of the book plays out is well done. I was skeptical of whether the book would come together, and I pleasantly surprised that it ultimately does.
For most thrillers, I think, the ending is the make-it-or-break it aspect of the story, and this one is pretty solid. Michaelides’s debut novel is an easy, accessible and entertaining read, and it will undoubtedly make for a thrilling movie if and when that is released.
Overall, the story keeps your interest and is well-paced. It reads pretty much the way a thriller should read, with plenty of twists and intriguing bits of information doled out at a steady clip.
Book Review: the Not-So-Good Stuff
That said, the flaws in this book are numerous. The characterizations of characters are sort of silly or cartoonish (the motherly female doctor! the arrogant doctor who gets in the way! and so on). Michaelides throws in so many red herrings and false starts that the book begins to have an unintentionally campy feel. (Without giving anything away, when we find out why Theo gets knocked out, I actually rolled my eyes.)
As for the writing, it’s passable, but leaves a lot to be desired. It serves to move from one plot point to the next (sometimes rather clumsily), and that’s about it. And while I liked the ending, a lot of the minor plot “twists” are pretty uninspired — there’s a lot of “he said, she said” in the mushy middle of the book that more closely resembles a jumbled mess than an entertaining mystery. Most of those red herrings are left unresolved.
Also, despite the steadily moving pace of the book, it takes a while to get into the meat of the book. There’s a range of characters to be introduced and decent chunk of background information to go over before the action starts to happen. As a result, it relies frequently on one of my least-favorite literary/mystery “tricks” to try to sustain the reader’s interest as it doles out background information — it throws out ominous-sounding narration to reassure you that things will get interesting later (I didn’t know then that it was doomed, I would later realize my mistake, etcetera and etcetera). Not a big deal, but I wish people wouldn’t do this.
Read it or Skip it?
As a fan of thrillers, I’m fairly forgiving of books in this genre that aren’t perfect. I found this book mildly entertaining, though I don’t think anyone would be missing out by not reading it. I do think it nails the ending, in my opinion anyway, which is often pretty key for me to enjoy a psychological thriller.
Honestly, my main thought is that it will be much better as a movie. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if the potential to sell movie rights is why the publisher picked it up in the first place.) The basic frame of a really good plot is there, it just needs some retooling and a little more nuance. Given the fantastic reputation of the studios developing it, anyone who is not a fan of a genre should give this a hard pass and just watch to movie when it comes out.
That said, if you do like psychological thrillers and are not nit-picky about your books, this is a quick and fun read overall. If you liked The Wife Between Us, for example, you might like this book (though I liked The Wife Between Us more than The Silent Patient).
Did you read this or are you considering it? What did you think? Check out the Silent Patient on Amazon.
Extras: Detailed Plot Summary (Spoilers)
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