The Silent Patient: A Lesson in Craft

Saturday, July 18, 2020

It seems appropriate that I start this post with dual warnings since this is a book with two narrators and two timelines. This post will be a gigantic plot spoiler. You’ve been warned so no fussing. 

The second warning is a trigger warning. This book is about abuse. As a thriller, this book is creepy and will at times makes your skin crawl. As a woman you’ve dealt with men who think that everything female on earth was put there for them. And then there’s the abuse. 

In spite of this, when I finished this book, I had the urge to go back to page one. Once I read the ending, I wanted to see how author Alex Michaelides set everything up. The ending was 100% inescapable but also a complete surprise. 

For those of you who don’t know the book, it is the story of a painter, Alicia Berenson. She and her husband, a fashion photographer, live in a big London home in a trendy neighborhood. She has an upcoming show. Then one night her husband comes home and she shoots him five times. No one knows why because she hasn’t spoken a word since the murder. 

This is a story with two timelines. There is the past, leading up to the crime. It is told in Alicia’s voice. She talks about her love for her husband their life. She talks about her childhood and her mother’s death. She talks about being stalked and the fact that no one believes her. She even admits that her husband made her see a friend of his, a therapist, who put her on medication for paranoia. 

The present timeline is told by Theo Faber, her present psychotherapist. He is certain Alicia didn’t shoot her husband but the only way to find out what happened is to get her to speak. To do this, he delves into her past. He talks to her cousin, her brother-in-law, and her gallery owner. Alicia as described by each of these men is a very different person. 

The story bounces between the two narrators and timelines. As the reader, you know someone has to be lying because there are just too many contradictions. You think you know which characters Alicia should trust. 

But as the stories dovetail, you realize Theo isn’t reliable. Really. This part is a huge plot spoiler. You find out that he was the stalker who threatened to kill both Alicia and her husband. He didn’t and wants to know who did. I can’t bring myself to spoil the entire plot. I know I warned you, but I just can’t do it. 

Michaelides wove together two stories. One with a narrator people see as fragile and potentially unreliable. The second with a narrator people see as reliable and trustworthy, maybe a bit unimaginative. As the story progresses, their roles are reversed. 

Read this book to study an ending that is surprising but inevitable. Learn about voice and how to choose your narrator(s). Explore pacing. I might be jealous if I wasn’t trying to piece together exactly how he did it. 

Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 25 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins  August 3, 2020) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins August 3, 2020). 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--I'm assuming the ending is not like the ending to "Gone Girl," which ticked me off. The husband--at the end--was not believable (in my value-less opinion).

I love (and hate) when I read a book and the crafting of it makes me want to dissect it. How did they do it? What tiny (and big) moves did they make that resulted in the incredible novel (or essay).

This summer, as part of the class I teach, I shared a lesson on essay-writing with my fellow teacher-students. It had "Joyas Voladoras" by Brian Doyle as the centerpiece. (The lesson was being workshopped by the group, since the results I got in previous years was not what I wanted. The middle-school students' pieces lacked the richness and the depth I KNEW was there inside them.)

The teachers' feedback was invaluable. I now have some concrete ideas on how to approach the project... and some of their suggestions were SO obvious... and yet so brilliant.

Why am I rambling on like this? I guess I wonder if--once in a while--we should not gather together to critique each other's work, but to study a published novel/essay/short story, and then everybody in the group tries to emulate the moves the author made.

I wish I could say that I will put this book on my stack of "must reads" but alas, I have too many on the pile already. However, I take your word for it. It's worth reading...

Margo Dill said...

I always think it is SO important to figure out how books that stick with us were written. It's a writing workshop!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I love your idea. Using a mentor text and seeing where it leads a group of people as well as running a lesson through a group would both be very revealing.

Definitely a writing workshop! Although, it can be so surprising. I remember thinking that I loved how a particular author described her characters. I looked at her work and realized that it is only a word here, a phrase there, and yet I know exactly how they look, act, react...


Gayle said...

Sue, I listened to THE SILENT PATIENT on audio. I was sitting at my desk doing some busywork when I discovered Theo had been the stalker. I actually said, "What?!" And I had to go back and listen again to make sure I'd heard that part right. After finishing the book, I thought, "I wish I'd written that. It was brilliant."

Cathy C. Hall said...

I'm with you, Sue, when I've read an amazing novel. I have to sit and think about how it was crafted and then read it again, taking mental notes.

Admittedly, I'm not a big fan of the unreliable narrator. When it's crafted well, though, it can be brilliant. When it's not-so-well done, I feel like the writer just threw in something for shock value and justified it with an unreliable narrator.

I'm tempted to read this one, just to see how brilliant it is! AND I won't be a nervous wreck and can concentrate on the craft. :-)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I listened to it too! Great production.

I am not an automatic fan when it comes to unreliable narrators. It has to be spot on with no "sins of ommission" just to make it work.


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