If I’m being honest, it’s not them… it’s me
Aside from that one summer when I listened to Serial and became obsessed with learning everything I could about Columbine, I’ve never cared much for true crime or mystery.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve avoided being scared on purpose. I got about two horror movies under my belt before I realized they’d send me into an anxious spiral and prevent falling asleep easily for weeks afterwards. If I watched, say, the Zac Efron movie about Ted Bundy, I’d wind up wide awake terrified to sleep next to my fiancé because, I mean, what if?
So when it comes to reading, I give horror and thrillers a wide berth. As in, I mostly try not to brush up against them unaware, let alone read them on purpose. And, aside from that one time I didn’t realize What Big Teeth was horror (whoops), I’ve done a pretty good job of it.
And yet, thrillers are one of the biggest genres in popular consumption these days. They are all over Bookstagram, Twitter, and make the book club rounds. So every now and again, I get tempted to give them a try.
This year, I’ve read two thrillers after seeing them everywhere. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither book really worked for me, but for very different reasons. I’ve resisted giving either title a straightforward review, since my feelings about them are complicated and probably say more about me and my relationship to thrillers than about the books themselves.
Today, I’m going to try and parse out why they didn’t work for me.
(Full disclosure: Links to specific books below are affiliate links, meaning I’ll earn a small commission at no additional cost to you, should you choose to purchase.)
Not Thrilling Enough?
The first thriller I read this year (and possibly ever?) was Northern Spy by Flynn Berry. I will fully confess I was swayed by 1) Reese Witherspoon and 2) an author interview on a podcast.
In spite of knowing full well I’m not a thriller kind of person, I reasoned it would be interesting to read a book set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I also liked that the story centered around two sisters, because I love a story with female protagonists that doesn’t focus only on their love lives.
Being that it was the first time I picked up a thriller on purpose, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
The phrase “aren’t thrillers supposed to be, um… thrilling?” crept through my mind a few times while reading this one. I think the vibe Berry’s going for is sort of quiet suspense, slowly building tension around whether or not something terrible is going to happen. But for me, a woman living alone with her baby being scared about things that might happen was just… kind of boring?
There was some fast-paced action right up towards the end, but then everything happened very quickly, and I didn’t feel satisfied with such a wrap up for the long, achingly slow build up.
Perhaps because I don’t read thrillers often, I’m not really familiar with the typical arc or patterns of the genre, but I wanted a bit more of a sense of the “after” when I’d had to endure so much of the “before” the Big Thing. But then again, maybe this kind of slowly-then-all-at-once style of plot is typical, for all I know.
Regardless, the book didn’t work for me and I am still fairly sure it’s just because of who I am, as a reader, and no actual flaw with the book itself. Either way, it was just one thriller among many, so perhaps I owed the genre another go.
A Little Too Familiar…
Reese and Book of the Month got me another time with We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz. The book’s colorful cover and premise about two young women embroiled in a tangled web after murder(s) in self defense stuck out to me, and I thought, okay, I’ll give this a go.
This one certainly has a quicker pace, and I found myself getting sucked in in that page-turner way I associate with thrillers.
Except that the main character is stuck in a manipulative, gaslighty relationship with her best friend that reminded me of, well… a relationship I had in high school.
The tightness in my chest wasn’t just from the action on the pages. It was the uncomfortable reminder of my past, my furious need to scream at Emily to get out of there ringing out to my sixteen-year-old-self. I asked myself more than once whether it was worth this discomfort to carry on — a question I suspect comes up for many when reading thrillers that may be particularly sensitive to their own histories and traumas.
I did end up finishing, pushing through once it became clear the protagonist was catching on to the situation. This was a gripping read for me, but I can’t quite say I enjoyed it. I got to the end of the book and wondered to myself if this was supposed to be a satisfying ending.
Because I read thrillers so rarely, I don’t really know what I’m expecting to get out of them, but in both cases I felt like the books hit their climaxes towards the end and then wrapped up very fast. Is it weird to want to know more about how the protagonists dealt with the aftermath of their culminating incidents? Possibly.
Regardless, I closed the book and truly couldn’t say what I thought of the experience, except that I’d been racing to get through it so I could a) find out what was going to happen and more importantly, b) read something else.
I guess where I wound up is that, for now, I’m going to stick with my instincts and stray away from thrillers.
As a reader, I like going outside my comfort zone every now and again. Sometimes you find amazing reads you never would have if you hadn’t stepped outside the norm. But I suspect there are some reads that are outside our usual for good reasons — they might just not be the books for us.
So, I won’t ever label an entire genre as off-limits for myself, nor would I judge others for what they like to read. Just because thrillers haven’t seemed to work for me yet doesn’t mean they never will, but I’m going to approach with a little more caution from now on, since it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a “love at first page” genre for me personally.
I’m curious to hear from folks who love thrillers. What do you go into them hoping to get? Are the complaints I listed norms of the genre? And if you think there’s a thriller I might actually like, I’m here for those recs, too!