Author: Alex Michaelides
Alicia Berenson was an up-and-coming artist. Now, she’s a silent patient at The Grove where a team of psychotherapists have worked for many years to find out why she shot her husband and why she hasn’t spoken since. Her only testament is a creepy, surrealistic picture that Theo Faber, the new psychotherapist, is convinced holds the clue to both the brutal murder and Alicia’s silence. Theo is betting his career on making a breakthrough with Alicia, and as his own personal life devolves, his silent patient beckons with the hint of a confidence, the slow unraveling of a long cherished lie.
The Silent Patient is a story that is part murder, part obsession. It begins with Theo, a man so besotted with this infamous patient that he leaves a steady career to join the ill-fated Grove. Slowly, as Theo works through his own difficulties, a journal reveals what happened to Alicia, leading up to the days of the murder: her creepy friend, her abusive family, her husband’s lecherous buddy, and her encroaching certainty that someone was following, was watching. That “someone” could have been anyone or maybe it was just a psychosis that lead to paranoia, murder, and then silence. Is Alicia the unwitting victim
of a conspiracy? A vengeful wife? Or is she just what she seems: a mental patient weighed down by an unstoppable insanity? As Theo picks up
the threads of her life and encounters the mentors and monsters Alicia met along the way, he begins to suspect that whatever happened that dark night was more complicated than anyone could possibly guess and that Alicia’s silence is the result of a strategy, not a malady.
I originally picked up The Silent Patient several years ago from Book of the Month as one of their selections. Since then, as other books have come and gone, the gossip has remained hot: this thriller is a real winner, a psychological cat and mouse game that has readers coming back, again and again. Intrigued, and craving a thriller worthy of the name, I finally dusted off my copy and began, instantly immersed in the oppressive atmosphere of a sanatorium under financial constraint, barely held aloft by its one famous patient and now, one strange doctor is risking everything to answer a mystery that hits a little too close to his own secrets.
I enjoyed the story, yet I don’t think it ever got beyond its status as an average thriller. Although the subject is juicy, it’s just another version of the same sort of story we’ve seen before. The lead narrator(s) are distinctly unreliable, with the added use of that maybe-they’re-insane trope that is used to solve a lot of lapses in logic and give readers that “surprise” at the end. It might have worked the first time it was used, but by now it’s old hat for the thriller genre and a gimmick that instantly leaves me tired and uninspired. Is there no other way to turn a narrative trick? No other backup beyond the “guess what he/she/they were crazy all along” motif? Not to say it isn’t fairly well done here (the “insane” person is not who you initially suspect), but it still smacks distinctly of wash-rinse-repeat genre fiction. Nothing new here. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing surprising.
That goes double for the Dr. Faber expose. It’s fairly obvious from the beginning what Theo’s secret interest involves and how he ties into the overall reveal. It’s especially obvious for thriller fans, who recognize the slight-off-hand for what it is: the hero-is-the-villain, always and forever. It’s the standard stuff of a thriller, the 360 turn that is expected and if not executed perfectly, a little trite. A little manufactured.
**End spoiler warning**
That’s not to say that the story isn’t decent. Honestly, if I hadn’t been so immersed in thrillers for so long (having gotten into the obsession when I discovered Gone Girl, like everyone else) I’d probably have found it more titillating. But if you’ve read more than ten thrillers, there is nothing especially new or clever here. It’s just entertainment. Not bad entertainment, but not especially praiseworthy either. We could forgive the usual tropes – after all, they are part of the reason we are here – but the characters in The Silent Patient don’t come alive like they should. They fall too into the trope of their respective roles.
Overall, The Silent Patient is a fun story, but it’s just regular thriller fair. It’s scandalous, and juicy, and shocking in all the places we expect, and the characters juxtapose in just the “surprising” ways they are supposed to, and the plot starts and stops and entwines and plays with time just as it always does with thrillers. You can see the formula here, and while it’s enjoyable, it’s not an especially memorable take.
– Frances Carden
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