If Joe Goldberg, the wildly narcissistic, hilarious, hopelessly romantic serial killer at the center of three bestselling novels and the hit Netflix series “You,” were to write a novel, what would he call it?
“Me,” of course. What else?
In “For You and Only You,” her fourth novel about Joe, author Caroline Kepnes delivers another witty, irresistible mashup of crime fiction and romance, crafted with care and slicked with satire.
Joe spent the pandemic lockup in Orlando, running Empathy Bordello Bar and Books and getting into some of his usual trouble (like a body left in the swamp). He also found the time to write a novel, and, as “For You and Only You” begins, he’s living the dream: His manuscript has gotten him accepted to a fiction writing workshop at Harvard.
He’s over the moon, he tells us, especially because the workshop is run by an author named Glenn Shoddy, “the author of ‘Scabies for Breakfast.’ He knows what makes people tick — ‘Scabies’ earned him a Pulitzer — and he’s the anti-Franzen — over two million copies sold, almost no one ticked off about his success.”
Joe envisions a bro-to-bro mentorship from Shoddy and a workshop experience full of struggling but brilliant writers. What he gets is Shoddy showing up in bike shorts and talking incessantly about riding, not writing, occasionally humble-bragging about the Coen brothers’ screenplay for his book.
And Joe’s workshop fellows are hardly struggling.
Sara Elizabeth Swallows is the author of a successful series of thrillers. Ani Platt is an Obie-winning playwright. The insufferable Lou has all kinds of literary connections — grad school classes taught by “my main mensch, George Saunders” — and cool-guy Mats has a day job designing video games; they both have novels about to be published.
Young O.K. DeLuca irritates Joe the most. She hasn’t written much of anything, but she’s a gold-plated nepo baby ― of her famous mother Joe says, “as far as I’m concerned, Diane Janz’s real name is Not Joan Didion. She’s an NPR yammerer.”
But there’s one more student in the workshop: Wonder Parish. She shows up late, apologizing profusely, drinking a Dunkin’ Coolatta and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned, “They hate us ‘cause they ain’t us.” When Lou drops Saunders’ name, she doesn’t know who he is. When Shoddy points out neither Joe nor Wonder went to college, O.K. dubs them “autodidacts,” barely masking her condescension.
Joe is instantly smitten by Wonder. She’s been in his presence for mere minutes, they’ve yet to have a conversation, and he hasn’t read a word she’s written. But, he says, “it hits me. You’re a writer. A true writer. Mercurial and solitary.”
And so the fantasy begins. In point of fact, Wonder is neither mercurial nor solitary. She lives in a duplex in a transitional neighborhood with her snotty sister, the sister’s kid and Wonder’s ailing Vietnam-vet father, for whom she’s chief caretaker. She manages a Dunkin’ and takes the T to Harvard.
But Joe never lets the facts get in the way. He’s soon obsessing over Wonder, speaking to her as the “you” that marks this series, a second-person address to a beloved that seems intimate, but also lets the reader measure how much Joe is making up a story for Joe. He’s a profoundly unreliable narrator, especially to himself.
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He spies on Wonder’s home life from a nearby construction site and lurks on social media, shows up at her Dunkin’ as if he doesn’t know she works there. There are plenty of works that cast stalkers as romantic — “Phantom of the Opera,” anyone? — but Kepnes dissects that disturbing trope with an icy scalpel. It’s fascinating to watch Joe construct a relationship out of almost nothing, a relationship in which he is always the good guy. And it’s terrifying to know how much he is not the good guy.
Kepnes’ group portrait of the workshop members and their dynamics is comedy gold. Writing workshops have a reputation for backstabbing, but these people are fully weaponized, and Joe’s internal play-by-play ups the level.
Then someone dies. Was it an accident? Is Joe not the only psychopath in the class?
Adding to his discomfort is a new topic of enthusiastic discussion in the workshop, a true-crime podcast called The Body on Bainbridge, about an unsolved murder in the rural Northwest. That would be the same patch of the rural Northwest Joe used to live in. Given how popular true-crime podcasts are, how many bodies do you have to leave behind before one of those podcasts turns out to be about you?
The plot twists keep on coming, so fast Joe’s wisecracks can hardly keep up, barreling toward a truly surprising finale. The key to “For You and Only You,” and all of this series, is Joe’s unmistakable voice, seductive and sharp and, once we realize we’ve fallen for it, frightening.
For You and Only You
By Caroline Kepnes
Random House, 448 pages, $28