Top positive review
4.0 out of 5 starsBrimming with neon-tinted, 90s nostalgia and a good old-fashioned unreliable narrator
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on April 18, 2022
3.5 stars rounded up ☆
“Charlie’s tempted to tell him everything. The darkness, the close quarters, the warmth—all of it sustains her confessional mood.”
The lights go down to reveal a night plunged in darkness and nervous, charged expectancy for what is to come. Perhaps a cinematic night is about to unfold with the potent color, music, and nostalgia of the 90s, which Riley Sager captures moodily and richly in all its overwhelmingly neon-tinted, climactic glory. Once the scene is set, Charlie, our protagonist and certified movie aficionado, is looking for a ride back to Ohio where she can escape the suffocation of the past and her guilt that haunts her like a persistent ghost always waiting in the wings to attack. Her best friend, Maddy, has recently been killed by the Campus Killer, and she shoulders a majority of the blame for throwing out words she doesn’t mean in a heated moment of no-return and leaving her in a time of need.
So, not being able to wait a second more, she ventures to the ride-share board in hopes of finding someone to take her home to where Nana Norma waits and they can get lost in a movie-induced haze to forget their troubles. Enter in Josh Baxter, with his mega-watt, killer (could this be literal or figurative?!) smile and Olyphant Sweatshirt, which must promise safety if he’s associated with Charlie’s university, right? As luck would have it, he’s headed in the same direction and is willing to drive her to her destination, but, you guessed it, their trip predictably gets madly side-tracked along the way as we’re led to question if Josh is truly who he says he is or in fact the infamous killer on the loose? Will either he or Charlie see the light of day? The darkness holds you captive as spectator, as it houses secrets and encourages confessional outpourings.
“That’s the best way to describe daily existence, with its endless parade of drudgeries and disappointments. In real life, people don’t break into song. They don’t battle space monsters. And they certainly don’t unwittingly get into the car with serial killers.”
And throw in the fact that Charlie becomes an unreliable narrator who can’t tell the fiction of the movie scenes she creates in her mind, blacking out à la Norman Bates, and reality apart. This part for me got muddled because it felt maddening rather than an added interesting layer to the story because of how wildly it swung in many different directions that felt too self-referential and frustrating to decode as reality completely folded in on itself. I lost truth where I needed it, which perhaps was part of the point, but, at moments, it went a smidge too far. There were also unbelievable tonal shifts in certain scenes that made it hard to understand why certain characters acted in certain ways or made certain decisions in specific moments, specifically Josh and Charlie. However, I didn’t find Charlie nearly as gullible and insufferable as Lora, the narrator of Cover Story, the last novel I read, even if she naively still stumbles into a stranger’s car when the Campus Killer is in their midst. She does question and second guess for longer periods of time, unlike Lora, who just accepted and trusted pretty mindlessly.
“And if Charlie’s learned anything from the movies, it’s that few things are more dangerous than someone with nothing to lose.”
All in all, it was still a thrilling ride of cat-and-mouse, menacing predator and challenged prey, gaslighter and gaslightee, even if the latter half of the story lost some of the momentum that the exciting beginning had promised. I just wonder who you’ll wind up trusting. When trust can be few and far between in these loaded moments and ongoing swells of emotions that have the ammunition of Josh’s car speeding recklessly through the night, threatening, in reverse fashion of the usual expression, that the devil you do know, contrarily, may be worse than the devil you don’t.