Saccharine narratives of love are commonplace in the romance genre. But Caroline Kepnes ’98.5 subverts the tired romantic cliche that we all love so much in her psychological thriller “You” — now adapted into the well-known television series — which was published in 2014 and released to Lifetime and then Netflix in 2018.
“I’d always loved these stories of love that were so horribly ostentatious,” Kepnes confessed with a laugh, “and ‘You’ was my way of rationalizing and working out why I love love stories so much.” Though Kepnes knew she’d never author flowery narratives of love, she thought she could satirize romance with thrill — a crude, real form of love, she said.
“You” follows Joe Goldberg, a twenty-something New Yorker who works in a local bookstore, and his obsession with Beck, a poetry graduate student — and University alum. The novel illustrates a romance where the lover can be unhinged, neurotic and violent, but still very much in love.
During most of her Brown career, Kepnes was unsure of the path she’d take after graduating. “As much as I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to learn about a lot of different things,” she explained of her choice to concentrate in American Civilization, now American Studies.
Kepnes took full advantage of the University’s curricular flexibility, even working on an independent study on “South Park” and eating disorders. Her only self-imposed requirement was to enroll in one writing workshop each semester. At The Underground Coffee Co., her favorite campus spot, Kepnes buried herself in her short stories and began to realize that all she wanted to do was write, she reflected to The Herald.
After graduating, Kepnes moved to New York “with a dream, not a plan,” instead of opting for the security of a job at a Providence-based law firm, she explained with a sort of nostalgic fondness. Not too long after her spontaneous move, Kepnes secured an editorial position at Tiger Beat through a serendipitous New York Times job listing.
“I’ve always been drawn to those things that were culturally interesting as opposed to practical,” Kepnes said of her work for the celebrity-focused publication, which mainly catered to the teenage demographic. It was through her journalistic pursuits in New York as a self-proclaimed “ultimate lost soul” that Kepnes was able to receive experience equivalent to a master’s of fine arts, she said.
But, after mastering how to write under strict deadlines in fast-paced environments while working for both Tiger Beat and Entertainment Weekly, Kepnes was ready to follow the dream she’d had since childhood: moving to California and pursuing creative writing.
When she began writing “You,” Kepnes, a native New Englander, had just moved to Los Angeles. “‘You’ became an escape, a way for me to romanticize the New York that I found myself missing,” she said. Kepnes explored many voices through her writing, but she found that her short stories and scripts always centered around romance, she said.
“Though the idea of writing a novel always seemed daunting, I just started to think of ‘You’ as a really long short story,” Kepnes said. After a while, she was able to employ her veteran short story voice to “treat each chapter as its own little entity, each with a beginning, middle and end.”
“Writing ‘You’ became my way of ... working out why I loved those perfect narratives so much,” Kepnes said. “Like, why did I want to watch ‘You’ve Got Mail’ eight billion times?” she wondered. “As a woman watching those things, unconsciously, you’re like, I could never be that (much) like an angel, so I wanted to write a story with real people,” she said.
So, to write about real people, Kepnes started with herself. “Beck was an exaggerated version of the way I was back then, and I learned about her through reading my journals of my New York life,” Kepnes confessed. “And Joe was this way of examining how hard people are on young women at that age.” Joe and Beck became toys that could question the halcyon relationships so prevalent in the pop culture that Kepnes was infatuated with, she said.
After “You” premiered on Lifetime in 2018, New York Times reviewer Margaret Lyons noted that “‘You’ zips along, never dwelling in its least-believable moments long enough to ruin the ride, and never indulging in its romances too much that you lose sight of the toxicity and danger underlying all the bonds.”
As the TV adaptation has popularized the characters in Kepnes’ novel, fans have begun to express their ambivalence toward Joe (Penn Badgley), Kepnes explained. “The deeper you go into someone’s head, the more it goes off the cliff of likability into relatability,” Kepnes contended, adding, “I think that empathy is inevitable when you begin to understand someone more fully.”
This uncertainty about Joe was echoed within Brown’s student body. “The show continues to teach you that no matter how smart, attractive and charming someone is, you never know who they are,” reflected Julianna Davis ’23. Joey Hernandez ’22 considered some viewers’ response to Joe’s character: “If this was any other appearance or demographic, then those people wouldn’t have thought the same way. They wouldn’t have sympathized with him. They would have just thought that ‘Oh, he’s just some criminal serial killer,’” he said. Despite their varying takeaways, both students said they will be watching season three.
“I liked this idea of Joe just being a prince who takes it too far. While I was writing, I never thought of him as a serial killer,” Kepnes said of her imperfect hero. “I never quite know the character I’m writing until I’ve finished, and to see everyone playing with him in this way is the most exciting experience of my writing career,” she added.
40 million users watched the first season of “You” during its first four weeks on Netflix, according to The Hollywood Reporter. In a Jan. 21 letter to shareholders, Netflix estimated that the show’s second season, which debuted in December, would be viewed by 54 million households within the first four weeks of its premiere.
When asked about what inspired her to diversify the romance genre through the brutal and macabre, Kepnes relayed the words of Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs”: “‘We begin by coveting what we see every day.’” The quote “reminds me of how nasty, relentless and unfixable things can be, and that sometimes that’s okay.”
As for her future plans, Kepnes says she has already written a third book and secured a fourth book deal for the “You” series, and she expressed that she will continue to celebrate and savor every part of the writing process.