Brown Baggers met virtually on Thursday, February 17 to discuss The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. A psychological suspense filled with unreliable, flawed characters, the plot premise is this: a criminal psychologist becomes obsessed with being the one to coax a convicted murderer – a young woman who shot her husband six times in the face – to speak (she went completely mum after the murder). While the novel is fast-paced and compelling, many readers judged it to be a “shallow story,” one that “wasn’t really saying anything” and “wasn’t going to change the world.”
This book is an opportunity to meditate on this question: why do we read “fun” books? Books that don’t necessarily serve as mirrors of our own life experiences or windows into the experiences of others? What makes them fun?
For our group, the fun came from the twist at the end. Some enjoyed the fact that they “got” the twist and still others found fun in the fact that they didn’t get the twist. We also saw clear clues that Michaelides was a screenwriter before entering the world of novels: we could practically hear eerie music playing in the background for a lot of the book! One reader listened to the audiobook and raved about the talented performers and an interesting interview with the author at the end of the book. The themes of power and struggle were also especially sharp: we’re always fighting for power, and if not power, something. Everyone has an ego, thinks they’re the best, and wants to defend their own territory.
The other interesting thing about a book like this is that it has the capacity to really bring true enjoyment to its readers without as much emotional, intellectual, or spiritual heavy lifting. Recently, this group has read a number of captivating but challenging books – The Warmth of Other Suns, The Yellow House, Cutting For Stone, The Nickel Boys, Red At the Bone, and Just Mercy, all in the last calendar year. Reading increases your concentration and vocabulary, helps you learn, improves memory, and serves as a vehicle for critical thinking. Reading is also entertainment. Admiring an author’s ability to entertain us is similar to admiring athletes, comedians, or other celebrities who entertain us. Being entertained, while not a necessity, brings light to our lives, and is often invigorating and energizing.
Still, one reader detested the “narrator as liar” trope and other readers found fault with the diary trope. The diary here, while expository for the reader and meant to provide a different textural feel within the writing, felt like a convenient trick for the author, and unrealistic to read. Who puts dialogue into their diary entries, even going so far as to include dialogue tags such as quotation marks and paragraph breaks?
Which brings us back to the question: we can’t avoid knowing we are reading fiction here. One reader said the book required inordinate suspension of belief. Often when we read fiction, the characters and the world they inhabit are “made up” but nevertheless believable. You might have noticed a lack of fantasy novels listed in this group’s recent reads, but members who enjoyed the book helped inform other members of the joys of reading unrelatable fiction.
To begin, the book was described as an “easy” read. One you could get caught up in, swept away in, wanting to know after every single page what happens next?! Also, one person’s eye-roll of a book is another person’s immersive joy. One reader said they were waiting for the “nitty gritty”: waiting for the intricate weaves of life that create realism. These characters might feel one level removed from “real,” but maybe that works. Consider this – your fully-real neighbors and friends come with inconvenient baggage that doesn’t serve the plot! These characters, then, could be crafted into perfect tools to create an all-encompassing pacing, mood, and atmosphere. As a reader, you are free to swim swiftly with the currents, unencumbered, no messiness or complexity not directly related to the story world.
Put one final way, a few members of our group finally came to this consensus: we know authors are “taking us places.” Authors create experiences that cause us to laugh, cry, and scream. But we as readers don’t want to see them doing it – we don’t want authors to expose themselves, reveal their own tricks. So, what do you think? Did Michaelides sweep you away into this thrilling mystery, or did you see too much of his hand in his handiwork?
Other titles mentioned:
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze
Our upcoming titles:
- The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan (April)