Here’s a recap, for those who have read the novel in full — and for anyone else who is a glutton for spoilers. London-based psychotherapist Theo Farber becomes obsessed with Alicia Berenson, a rising-star painter who’s convicted of murdering her fashion-photographer husband Gabriel. After the murder, she stops speaking entirely and is placed in the Grove, a secure psychiatric unit where Theo applies for a job six years later — expressly to meet, and treat, the still-silent Alicia. Theo, who spent two decades in therapy exploring trauma induced by a cruel father, is hopelessly compelled toward Alicia, who suffered a similar upbringing; and is desperate to make her start talking about her crime. (We hear her perspective through diary entries, oddly presented with back-and-forth dialogue, like no journal I have ever seen.) Theo embarks on desperate investigations into Alicia’s life, insisting on meetings with her jealous gallerist Jean-Felix, her spurned brother-in-law Max and her semi-estranged, debt-riddled cousin Paul. (Shady men, each with motive … dun dun dun.) Theo’s narration about his actress wife, Kathy — who he discovers is cheating on him — is intercut as though concurrent with Alicia’s treatment. But it turns out (the twist!) that Kathy cheated six years ago — with Gabriel, Alicia’s husband — and it was then that Theo, the true psychopath, broke into Alicia’s house, held her captive and exposed the affair, triggering a long-dormant trauma that incites her to shoot Gabriel in the face.
Could I have called that? Nope. Though I’d happily pretend I could have, so shrewd a reader am I. In reader reviews, psych-thriller obsessives — an excitable community that congregates on blogs, message boards, Reddit threads — pride themselves on being able to guess a twist ending, the hallmark of the genre. They have seen every mystery trope, met every unassuming murderer, sharpened and resharpened their acumen until everything becomes, or at least feels, obvious — like a swaggy doctor who diagnoses you before you have ticked off all your symptoms. Savvy or not, I am no seasoned thriller-ite. If I were, I might have at least gleaned the obvious: Michaelides has said he has been mightily inspired by Agatha Christie, whose murderers are often the least likely suspects. Surely, I betrayed my psych-thriller novicehood by not suspecting Theo from the jump. 101, much?
Another crumb: Michaelides explicitly steeps the story in a framework of Greek tragedy (with a running reference to “Alcestis,” an obscure Euripides play about a wronged princess who returns from Hades and, like Alicia, refuses to speak). The charmed lives of ancient Greek protagonists tend to get upended by hubris, a quality Theo — who believes he alone can make the silent patient speak — surely exemplifies. (Only later do we realize the depths of his arrogance, when it is revealed Theo was hellbent on getting close to a murderer whose crime he himself caused.) Of course, this faithful Greek drama will topple its lead player. Of course, Theo has it coming. Of course, because he is guilty. Of course, of course!
Michaelides also sets the tale in the world of psychotherapy, lingering on the concept of countertransference, in which a therapist becomes emotionally entangled with his patient. Might I have inferred sooner that Theo and Alicia were inextricably linked, even co-actors of some sort? And extrapolated further to deduce they are both culpable for the same murder?
Maybe. In truth, I did not see any of this, though I imagine a good thriller will always make a reader second-guess herself — or else, what is the “psychological” bit all about? The plot of “The Silent Patient,” with my limited experience in the genre, felt fresh to me. What did not — what I’d certainly seen before — were some of the novel’s hacky horror tropes. In Michaelides’s London, the sky is forever threatening snow, a stark and chilling white. The house where Paul lives with his abusive mother is an “ugly … Victorian monster” surrounded by “wasteland,” with an ivy-covered facade and a weed-encroached garden. Has the creepy Victorian and shrill, disapproving mother not been done to death? Norman Bates, are you there?
Trite scenes pop up throughout. Paul, suspecting Theo to be an intruder, clonks him, cartoonishly, on the head with a baseball bat. The red-herring characters are comically shifty, like Max, who’s long carried a torch for Alicia but insists, while gazing dramatically out a window and after a deep inhale, that he “loathed” her. The lone American character, Alicia’s neighbor, is nothing more than caricature — a “California blonde … drenched in Chanel No. 5”: loud, pushy, nosy, plasticized, divorced and literally named “Barbie.”
These details may feel tired in a novel, but on-screen, I worry they will feel bedraggled, fried, up-since-2-a.m. exhausted. Yet Michaelides, a first-time novelist, spent years penning screenplays (a career he has described as “soul destroying”). Writing a novel was his attempt to pivot — so hopefully he will be able to spin the derivative elements of the book into far more clever delights in the film. At the very least, and as long as he is borrowing from Hitchcock, here’s hoping he weaves one twisty cinematic web — with an ending you do not see coming.
Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in New York.