Review Content Warning: Mentions of Death, Mentions of Violence
Book Content Warning: Violence, Claustrophobia, Gun Violence, Strangulation
“And for Charlie, the bedrock truth is that she thinks she deserves to have something awful happen to her.”—Riley Sager, “Survive the Night”
It’s finally summer, and thriller-fanatics know what that means: a new Riley Sager novel!
Ever since his debut novel Final Girls hit the New York Times bestseller list in 2017, garnering rave reviews from thriller veterans such as Stephen King, Sager has developed somewhat of a cult-following, of which I am a hardcover-toting member.
I became addicted while listening to his second novel, The Last Time I Lied, after which I immediately read Final Girls, and the rest is history.
Last year, his haunted-house-horror-novel Home Before Dark garnered five stars from me, as well as many other satisfied readers. Sager kicked fellow thriller novelist Ruth Ware out of the water as my favorite of the contemporary genre, so naturally, his newest novel, Survive the Night, was my most anticipated read of the year. I had pretty high expectations, as none of his other novels had been below a four-star for me.
Survive the Night, unlike Sager’s other novels, reads almost like a play, all taking place over the course of one night. First, we meet Charlie, our protagonist, a college student escaping home mid-year after her best friend was tragically murdered by the Campus Killer, an infamous serial killer that remains at large since their most recent murder was committed four years before. Wracked with grief and feeling inexplicably guilty that the death was somehow her fault, Charlie itches to get away as soon as possible.
Sager is known for feminine protagonists with a history of family trauma, and Charlie is no exception: Charlie’s parents were killed in a car accident only four years before, and the death of her best friend Maddy seems to both open new wounds and exacerbate old ones.
When Charlie meets Josh at her college ride board, offering a free ride home to Ohio along with him to visit his ailing father, Charlie decides her only choice is to accept the invite while remaining cautious.
But Charlie is no ordinary grief-stricken student, she has a special ability to see “movies in her head.” As Charlie explains it: “Instead of what’s really happening, I see a heightened version of the scene. Like my brain is playing tricks on me. I hear conversations that aren’t happening and see things that aren’t really there.”
Of course you do, Charlie.
That said, I’m going to be honest: this book was a disappointment for me. As skillfully as this novel was written, and as much as I was on the edge of my seat for the last twenty percent, this is a three-star.
Although easily explainable as a side effect of trauma endured from losing her parents, the “movies in your head” element of Charlie’s perspective felt like nothing more than a plot device Sager implemented to further lead his reader off the scent. For example, when perspectives switch back and forth between Charlie and the driver, Sager constantly calls into question whether the events transpiring are entirely in Charlie’s head, or if the driver is just making her believe this on purpose. Needless to say, the uncertainty didn’t work for me—it only made me feel frustrated.
There were a few things that left a bad taste in my mouth when I first began the novel, a feeling I hoped wouldn’t stay with me. I quickly began to lose faith in Sager as a similar plot of another contemporary horror novel—No Exit by Taylor Adams—came to mind, something I was not looking forward to reading a second time. What’s more, a red herring was introduced within the first chapter, raising my suspicions, and I began to think Sager somewhat cocky for throwing the reader in one concise direction so early.
Throughout the novel, Sager tricks his reader into believing that they have everything completely figured out based on the way the story has led them, just so that he can pull the rug out from under you later with a mind-blowing twist. As a reader, I found this a little annoying, as it seemed more contrived than his usual narrative style.
The chapter titles are written like scene headers in a screenplay, (e.g., “INT. VOLVO–NIGHT”). Though seemingly an attempt to place the reader in Charlie’s “movie seeing head”, these scene headers did the opposite—it pulled me out of the story. This was jarring at first, but I soon understood that Sager used this staging technique to avoid setting the scene after each short section, which would take the reader out of the flow. Nevertheless, it was a bit distracting, personally.
Another gripe I had may just apply to a more seasoned reader of the thriller genre, but I was able to figure out the killer earlier than I have for any of Sager’s other books. I kept hoping, praying that this wasn’t it, that there was going to be an elaborate twist that I never would have thought of. I thought he was setting up all these red herrings so that he could blow my mind later, just like last summer with Home Before Dark.
As I kept reading, and my patience grew thin, all signs began to point towards what I had predicted. Honestly, it could be chocked up to too few characters, but it’s always a bummer for me when I figure out the killer that early on.
In addition, I found Survive the Night to be very put-downable. Usually, I finish thrillers in twenty four hours or less, Sager’s books in particular. I finished Home Before Dark in a day, and I planned to do so with this one as well, carving out an entire day to sit on my patio and become engrossed in suspense. Instead, it took me almost four entire days to finish. I kept yelling “get to the point! don’t keep me waiting!” and “oh, come on!” like a crazy person for my neighbors to hear. At some moments, I grew annoyed with Sager for throwing in so many red herrings and very convenient plot lines.
Ultimately, though, this is a novel about grief, and the things we do during that time when it feels like you’ve already felt the worst pain possible. When these overarching themes of pain and loss revealed themselves, my cold, horror-loving heart melted, and I was finally able to connect with the characters as real people with real emotions rather than plot instruments.
Although this is not my favorite of Sager’s novels, I would overall recommend Survive the Night, and Sager’s other thrillers, especially for beginners to the genre. It’s twisty, but not too predictable, and it’ll have you on the edge of your seat!
RILEY SAGER is the pseudonym of a former journalist, editor and graphic designer. Now a full-time writer, Riley is the author of Final Girls, an international bestseller that’s been published in 25 languages, and the instant New York Times bestsellers The Last Time I Lied, Lock Every Door and Home Before Dark. His latest book, Survive the Night, will be available June 29 from Dutton Books. A native of Pennsylvania, he now lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Survive the Night can be purchased here.