Two Thrillers About Reinventing Yourself

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Image by Lisette Brodey from Pixabay

I am an omnivorous reader and was a precocious one. The nursery school I attended was on the campus of Connecticut College for Women, and would-be teachers assisted the staff educators in a reading method then known as “dynamic reading,” which was popularized as the Eveyln Wood speed reading technique, so I read whatever was at hand at school, home and the local library.

Both the library and New London’s only book store were near my father’s office, where I waited after school until he was ready to leave, so I was a frequenter of both. The librarian frowned at my penchant for adult fiction and steered me gently to the children’s section. But at the Book Store, I’d casually browse the best-sellers, amble to the back of the long, narrow room and plop down on the floor with the latest Harold Robbins or Grace Metalious, devouring them a few chapters at a time, slowing down my speed reading in the steamy parts.

Eventually the owners suggested to my mother that I earn my keep, so I began dusting the shelves, unpacking the boxes and reading to younger kids on Saturday mornings.  In return, I was permitted to take books home overnight from stock and return them, in pristine condition, when I was finished.

I read more widely these days, borrow from the library more often than I have since that time, and buy more infrequently than I once did.  I sometimes acquire advance copies of new books and have friends who still buy current fiction from independent booksellers, cull their overcrowded shelves regularly, and pass them on to me. I in turn pass them on to the Little Free Libraries on my block, where I often find that evening’s reading.

I am a LFL devotee; it’s the first thing I look for when I’m in other neighborhoods, often consulting a local map just in case there’s a new discovery to be made, an author I’ve heard about but never read, a classic I’ve always meant to, or a backlist title Nancy Pearl recommended. (Speaking of Seattle’s favorite Librarian Emeritus, the only one ever honored with her own bobblehead figure, a colleague of mine knows where Nancy Pearl ‘s favorite LFL is but refuses to share. Shame on you, J.G).

I found one of the two novels I took with me on a recent weekend getaway in an LFL. One was a glossy reader’s advance of a current best-seller, the third in a series adapted for television by Netflix. I borrowed the other, which was published in 2004, from the library because a friend mentioned it while we were talking about voting, a subject much in the news, and what it means when it doesn’t seem to matter. 

What links these books besides the fact that I read them successively, if not dynamically, are their genre, theme, and setting. Both Jessie Walters’ Citizen Vince and Carolyn Kepnes’ You Love Me are categorized as thrillers, but although crimes are committed and blood is spilled, neither one really is.

Thematically, their protagonists are middle-aged men who have cut their ties to the past and reinvented themselves as different people in different places with new identities, both in Washington. But neither Vince Camden in Spokane or Joe Goldberg on Bainbridge Island  has yet become the man he yearns to be; as they eventually learn, you take yourself with you wherever you go.

Vince Camden, a small-time gangster, has been relocated from New York by the Witness Protection Program, which taught him a new trade – baking – and found him a new job making donuts in a small town where, they told him, there were enough other Italians so he wouldn’t stand out. He’s met a few of them and made some other acquaintances, including a woman he’s interested in, but it hasn’t progressed very far.

She works for a candidate for state representative running on the Democratic ticket in 1980, and drags apolitical Joe along to a few campaign events, including one based on an anecdote about a Tom Foley speech in a local tavern where the suit and tie-clad politician’s order – a glass of chardonnay and a slice of dry toast – strikes even Vince as evidence that he’s going to lose: In fact, it was then-Congressman Tom Foley’s narrowest win in his long career.

 Vince leads a mostly law-abiding life, although old habits die hard, especially when there’s an opportunity to supplement his income with a familiar grift involving forged credit cards. He’s pretty content, all things considered, until a guy walks into a bar whom Vince instinctively knows is a killer.

His handlers in the Program are baffled; as far as they know, no one’s looking for him. But he knows when there’s a target on his back, so he risks his life returning to the milieu he left to try to sort out who’s gunning for him. He likes his new life, not just the wide-open geography but the easy acceptance of its mostly working-class people and its slow, predictable pace.

Hoping to salvage it, he returns to New York, but before he leaves town, he does something else; for the first time in his life, Vince Camden registers to vote. That seemingly small act is the redemptive arc that propels this skillfully paced, acutely observed, and wholly satisfying novel to its conclusion.

 I overlooked Citizen Vince because I hadn’t liked Walter’s first book, a police procedural, but since then I’ve read and enjoyed a few of his subsequent novels, and will be borrowing the rest of his back list now that the library is open for actual browsing.

I probably won’t be doing that for Carolyn Kepnes’s books, particularly not the two in the “You” series that preceded You Love Me, which is the third in a buzzy trilogy about a charming, erudite, technology-proficient sociopath who falls obsessively in love with the wrong women and is forced, ultimately, to reckon murderously with them.

I can hear the pitch that made Netflix pick it up for a series – “It’s like Dexter meets Lucifer, but darker.”  I haven’t checked out the show yet, and on the basis of the book, I probably won’t until I come to the end of Netflix, if that’s possible: Narrated in the second person, the “You” of the titles puts the reader right inside Joe’s head, and while it’s often a creepy place to be, especially when the voice in my own head warned me to get out of there before I began to see things from Joe’s perspective, the technique forces an unexpectedly empathetic bond between reader and character.

There are enough clues to Joe’s back story to warn you about him, particularly the one that explains how he financed his new life, his beautiful home, and the philanthropic gift that’s his entrée into the world of the woman he’s fallen in love with before he even meets her with a four million dollar payoff for abandoning his infant son.

He moves to Bainbridge, a picture-perfect island that seems like the kind of charming community portrayed on his favorite TV shows, peopled with neighborly folks like the character actors in Gilmore Girls. That the woman he’s been stalking from afar on social media and other internet sources is also the single mother of a teenage daughter reinforces Joe’s growing obsession, and sets his plan to insinuate himself into her life in motion.

She is the town librarian; he gifts it with a substantial sum and in turn is accepted as a volunteer. Their courtship proceeds slowly, enabling Joe to show off his biggest talent, his ability to be the perfect man, exactly who a woman is seeking even if she doesn’t know it yet.

He’s done his research before he met her; he knows her hobbies, her interest, her friends, her taste in coffee, clothes, and literature. And once in her proximity, he continues gathering information, anticipating her every need; there’s a hint of Fifty Shades of Grey, but Joe’s not looking for sex, it’s true love he’s after. If he seems too good to be true, it’s because he really wants to be, but ultimately his own narcissism blinds him to seeing his fantasy woman as she really is.

Few writers are good enough to make a sociopath appealing; Joe Goldberg is no Ripley, and Kepnes is no Patricia Highsmith. I wasn’t a big enough fan to read the first couple of books in this series, and just the teaser of the Netflix adaptation convinced me that, unlike Dexter and Lucifer, whom I liked well enough on the small screen to watch every season, Joe isn’t someone I want to spend more time with.

As for the author’s descriptions and observations of Joe’s fantasy island, it was hard to tell whether she was capturing or caricaturing Bainbridge Island, especially because I was there while reading it. I didn’t drop in at the library, but I’ve spent enough time there  to catch the town’s particular vibe, and done my own share of stereotyping many of its residents.

Reinventing one’s life is a trope in nonfiction, and, increasingly, in novels.  It’s pretty common in actual thrillers, too. And some of both are often set in familiar environs. As both an omnivarious reader and occasional writer, I’m always looking for the next one.

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"Jane Adams PhD was a founding editor of the Seattle Weekly. Among her twelve books is Seattle Green, a novel . She is a contributing editor at Psychology Today, and coaches parents of adult children."

1 COMMENT

  1. It was a treat to read about Jane’s addiction to LFLs. They were a godsend when Seattle Public Libraries were shuttered. Not only did we benefit from finding a good read or two, but we could also leave the books that (in my case) no longer fit into my many book shelves. As to Nancy Perle’s favorite LFL, of course I keep it off the record. It’s just like the days when we’d harvest wild blackberries — would you dream of sharing the location of the juiciest crop?

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