Sunday, February 10, 2019

Book Review: "The Silent Patient" by Alex Michaelides

I read a lot of thrillers, so I tend to be pretty hard on them. Because, as I've mentioned, I have this tendency to suspect every single character that appears in a thriller, I'm often not as surprised as many others are when authors throw in twists and turns, or when the perpetrator is finally revealed.

While I had some suspicions about the way things in Alex Michaelides' terrific debut, The Silent Patient, might go, I will admit he pulled one over on me at one point. I really enjoyed the way he kept me guessing and was completely hooked on this story of murder, infidelity, psychological instability, and the desire to be a savior.

Alicia Berenson was an artist of some renown, but these days she's more infamous than anything else. Married to a handsome photographer for whom she is consumed by love, they seem to be the picture-perfect couple, at least to anyone on the outside looking in. One night, her husband came home late from a shoot. Moments later, he was shot five times in the face and killed, and the police found Alicia covered in his blood, as well as her own, as she attempted to slit her own wrists.

From that moment on, Alicia hasn't spoken a word. Her trial for her husband's murder was a hotbed of rumors, innuendo, and media sensationalism, but no one ever finds the answers they seek, no one understands what would have made Alicia kill her husband so brutally and then try to take her own life. With no other real choice, the judge sentences her to treatment at the Grove, a forensic unit for dangerous patients, in North London.

"And so, with no further revelation forthcoming, the disappointed media eventually lost interest in Alicia Berenson. She joined the ranks of other briefly famous murderers; faces we remember, but whose names we forget."

But psychotherapist Theo Faber continues to be fascinated by Alicia's case, and he believes that only he can reach her, can delve down into her psyche to uncover the secrets that have kept her silent for six years now. When a position opens at the Grove, he is quick to jump on it, and it isn't long before he has convinced the clinical director, Dr. Lazarus Diomedes, to let him begin treating Alicia, even if she hasn't spoken a word to any other doctor, and has displayed sometimes self-harming and sometimes violent behavior toward others.

Theo does want to help Alicia and perhaps find out the truth behind her husband's murder and the events of that fateful night. But he's also drawn to her because he believes they share a troubled childhood and even a history of emotional challenges. Theo has struggled with depression throughout his life, yet he believes he's uniquely qualified to help Alicia, and perhaps, himself.

"The real motivation was purely selfish. I was on a quest to help myself. I believe the same is true for most people who go into mental health. We are drawn to this profession because we are damaged—we study psychology to heal ourselves. Whether we are prepared to admit this or not is another question."

As Theo attempts to connect with Alicia, he faces challenges from his colleagues and the management of the Grove, who are considering closing down the aging facility, and from Alicia herself. Is she really mad, or is the silence an act? Is she a violent murderer or a misunderstood, grieving widow? Theo seeks answers as his own life seems to be imploding at the same time.

The book's narration shifts between past and present, from Theo's endeavors to treat Alicia to Alicia's reflections of the past expressed through her personal journal. I really wasn't sure what to believe about her, and I kept waiting for some surprise to come bursting out of the woodwork. Michaelides does an excellent job teasing out the suspense in small doses, making you suspect different characters along the way, while you race to figure out the truth as Theo tries to do the same.

In a sea full of thrillers, I found The Silent Patient to be a really strong one that stands apart. There were a lot of layers to this book, and Michaelides was like an orchestra conductor, making sure all of the pieces worked together. If this was his debut, there's no telling what he will come up with next. I know I'll be watching.

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