Rating: 3/5 stars
Book Content Warnings: sexual abuse, sexual assault
Joe Goldberg is back and as eerily difficult to hate as ever in the third installment of Caroline Kepnes’ You series, and this time around he’s tackling the Pacific Northwest. Fans of the series will remember that the previous installment, Hidden Bodies, ended with Love Quinn—Joe’s second major love interest—pregnant while Joe was in jail, possibly facing charges for the lives of several people lost in the line of Joe’s search for love. You Love Me quickly (and finally) reveals the aftermath of these circumstances, but it’s a You novel, which means that all is never truly as it seems. You simply have to keep reading up until the very last page if you want to know the full story.
In You Love Me, Joe’s love interest is Mary Kay DiMarco, a librarian at the library where Joe is volunteering. Unlike Joe’s previous love interests, Mary Kay is much older than him and also the mother of a senior in high school. So begins Joe’s usual song-and-dance routine of manipulating everyone around him as he inserts himself into Mary Kay’s life and tries to make her “realize” that he’s the perfect guy for her. However, as readers quickly learn, Joe’s new life isn’t quite free of his many “hidden bodies.”
Despite having a more subdued slow-build beginning than its fast-paced, bam-bam-bam predecessors, once You Love Me starts to pick up it has that no-time-to-breathe feel that makes all the books in the series nearly impossible to put down. As per usual, Kepnes pulls out all the stops with bottomless cliffhangers and narrative-shaking revelations. And, as always, one of the most enjoyable features of Kepnes’ You series is the abundance of pop culture references, especially literary allusions—to read any book in the series is to put ten more on your to-read list.
The dramatic change of setting to the Pacific Northwest goes a long way towards making the book feel fresh while Joe’s trademark mix of first-person and second-person narration keeps it feeling familiar, reminding fans of the series why they’re coming back to the character and his story. Kepnes has an uncanny talent when it comes to immersing readers in vastly different settings each time around, and Washington state feels as vibrant and real as New York and Los Angeles did in You and Hidden Bodies. It’s fascinating to see Joe act as a chameleon, seamlessly integrating himself into whatever new part of the country he lands in while readers get to explore this new territory with him. This also serves to remind us of Kepnes’s central thesis: men like Joe can and do survive anywhere and everywhere.
Unfortunately, like many sequels, You Love Me falls flat, tripped up by its own ambition. You on its own is a fantastic stand-alone, so much so that when Hidden Bodies came around, I was intensely curious but also intensely skeptical about how Kepnes could possibly continue the saga of Joe Goldberg and pull it off as well as she did in You. Hidden Bodies, though, impossibly raised the stakes and one-upped You.
I had similar expectations for You Love Me, and unfortunately, it didn’t quite hit the mark. It’s clear that You Love Me is trying too hard to both adhere to whatever formula made the first two books so fantastic while also trying to veer off-course in an attempt to keep fans gasping every other page—it was the latter accomplishment that made Hidden Bodies a surprisingly outstanding follow-up.
Unlike Hidden Bodies, however, You Love Me veers off-course into the unhinged—the magic simply isn’t there anymore. About midway through the novel, the events become illogical and unsatisfying. The chapters start to feel like the results of a random generator programmed to spit out scenarios that vaguely seem as if they fit into the world of Joe Goldberg and his you-kind-of-do-have-to-suspend-your-disbelief-a-little life, without taking into consideration whether or not there are narratively satisfying transitions tying these scenarios together.
Notably, the main through line in You Love Me is an engagement with current feminist discourse that wasn’t present in the first two books. This, at first, might strike readers as interesting, especially given that Joe is the one who engages with this discourse. For example, he examines his reverence for the films of Woody Allen at the behest of Mary Kay’s best friend, Melanda, a diehard feminist who frequently espouses her sociopolitical opinions.
The overt inclusion of feminist discourse feels gimmicky, and eventually falls through entirely, mostly because of the narrator that Kepnes chooses to engage with said discourse. And given that You Love Me falls into the horror/thriller genre, its explicit conversation with the #MeToo movement comes off more as an attempt at adding gratuitous shock value to the story than something that contains real substance and social value. What is the value of using sexual abuse and assault as plot points when you’re telling a story about a male serial killer that manipulates and uses women as he pleases?
In You, Joe Goldberg was as textbook serial killer as a character can get. Now, in You Love Me, it seems like the story is doing too much to try and make Joe out to be more than just his “hidden bodies.” But there is no “cool” motive—only murder.
Caroline Kepnes is the New York Times bestselling author of You, Hidden Bodies, Providence and You Love Me. Her work has been translated into a multitude of languages and inspired a television series adaptation of You, currently on Netflix. Kepnes graduated from Brown University and then worked as a pop culture journalist for Entertainment Weekly and a TV writer for 7th Heaven and The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She grew up in Cape Cod, and now lives in Los Angeles.
You Love Me can be purchased here.