Have you ever got to the end of a book and wondered — what the heck did I just read?!?
If not, then you might want to pick up Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes because it’s got one of the most WTF endings I’ve read in quite some time. In fact, the ending is so WTF, that any conversation about the book is going to naturally have to go into detail about it. You are suitably warned.
When single-mother Louise meets David in a bar, the chemistry between them is electric. But, he’s married, so Louise ends up not pursuing more than a semi-drunk flirtation with him. Things get a bit more awkward when it turns out that David is the new doctor at the counseling clinic where Louise is employed part-time. Despite a conversation in which both of them declare that seeing each other is a bad idea, the chemistry continues to be there.
Things get even more complicated with Louise runs into Adele, David’s wife. The two strike up a friendship, though Louise conveniently omits that she flirted with Adele’s husband and that she and David have started an affair (apparently behind Adele’s back, though the first-person chapters from Adele’s point of view make it clear that she not only knows about this, she’s also manipulating both sides for….well, more on that later).
If you’re thinking we’ve even reached the depths of the WTF, we aren’t even in the same zip code yet.
Through flashbacks, we find out that Adele has an interesting past — her parents died in a fire, she’s wealthy but she’s signed over all her money to David, and she spent time getting mental help while David was in college. It’s at the institution that she meets Rob, who she gets close to during her time. They get so close that Adele invites him to come to stay with her should Rob’s family kick him out if and when he backslides from his drug habit.
If you’re wondering who Rob is and why Behind Her Eyes keeps flashing back to him and turns over a good bit of the novel’s real estate to him, the answer becomes clear in the final pages. And it’s once the answer becomes clear that the question of whether or not you love the novel or want to throw it against the wall in frustration will be answered.
I’m in the throw it against the wall in frustration side of the argument. But to say more would get into spoiler territory. So, turn back now if you want to read this or watch the Netflix miniseries based on the novel without knowing the ending.
Turns out that Adele spends much of the novel teaching Louise the art of lucid dreaming and astral projection. And Adele learned this little trick from Rob while in therapy. So far, I can accept this and chalk it up to the willing suspension of disbelief. (Look, I am a huge fan of a series that has its main character travel through time in space in a machine bigger on the inside and disguised as a police box. Huge leaps of faith aren’t something new here).
Where Pinborough and the novel throw your willingness to go along with this back into your face is in Part 3 of the novel when the revelations and twists start coming fast and furious. Turns out Rob sees David and falls into insta-love with him (huge points off for insta-love, one of my least favorite tropes). Rob decides Adele doesn’t deserve David, so he uses the astral projecting to switch bodies with her, kill her in his old body and proceed to take over Adele’s life. He even goes as far as having Adele terminate a pregnancy because he doesn’t want any part of Adele tainting his life with David.
How much or how little David realizes what’s going on is a bit murky — and at times, it feels like how much or how little he knows depends entirely on how much Pinborough wants to pull the wool over your eyes.
But he must realize that something is up because he’s sleeping in the guest room and with Louise. He’s also making plans to divorce Adele. So, Rob decides it’s time to be done with Adele. By teaching Louise how to open herself to the body switching, he opens a door (she literally sees a door in her dreams) so he can sneak in, take over her body and then kill Adele’s. The novel ends with Rob in Louise’s body, married to David (doesn’t take him long to move on) and plotting to eliminate Louise’s son while on a cruise because the son suspects something is up and — wait for it — tragedy will bring Louise/Rob and David closer together.
At this point, the eye rolling I was doing reached levels where I was concerned they’d roll back so far I could see inside my own head.
Behind Her Eyes is marketed on the twist at the end of the novel and that “you won’t see it coming.” And therein lies my biggest issue with the book. I don’t mind a good twist or two in the novel’s final pages. I don’t mind the rug being pulled out from under me. But what I do mind is when that twist doesn’t feel earned. The whole body-switching things feels like a twist that’s pulled out of left field for the sake of having one huge final twist in the last few pages rather than an earned surprise that makes you go back and examine pivotal points of the novel again. Indeed, thinking too much about the twist and the implications only leads to madness.
We get chapters narrated by Rob/Adele, and while it’s intriguing to think that we have the ultimate unreliable narrator for these sections, there aren’t enough clues dropped that something more is up — well, until Part 3 when the novel seems to be trying to be clumsily setting up its end game (such as it is). Of course, this is a book full of unreliable narrators (Louise’s POV as she becomes seduced by Adele and David makes her increasingly unreliable when it comes to being honest about her actions and motivations), so I guess that’s not exactly the mammoth shock that the novel wants it to be.
All of it left a bad taste in my mouth — to the point that I am thinking I’m unwilling to watch the Netflix series. And since I started this one so I could be a literary snob and read the book first, then watch the show, I feel a bit disappointed.