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“The Silent Patient” – Alex Michaelides

by Farzeen Mughal

Book Title: The Silent Patient
Author: Alex Michaelides
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Rating: 5/5

Warning: The review contains major spoilers so kindly do not read it if you haven’t read the book.

The story The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides belongs to the genre of psychological thriller, a genre that I haven’t explored much. The novel deals with the theme of jealousy, betrayal, and repression of emotions or lack of communication. It also sheds light on how childhood trauma and past events can damage one’s personality beyond repair and no matter how much one tries to move forward the ghosts from the past will never stop haunting one’s present. The book revolves around the characters of Alicia Berenson and Theo Faber and is told in first-person narration through Theo’s perspective with occasional snippets from Alicia’s diary. Alicia Berenson is a famous painter and a happily married woman who lives with her photographer husband Gabriel Berenson. One fine day she kills her husband by shooting him four times on his face after which she becomes silent and is admitted to a mental health facility called The Grove. Her only form of communication before going to The Grove is a painting which she named Alcestis, inspired by the Greek tragedy of the same name by Euripides. Theo Faber is a psychotherapist who suffered physical and emotional abuse as a child at the hands of his father, however, with the help of his therapist, he learns to move on and finds his happiness with Kathy, his wife, a theatre actress. Theo is obsessed with Alicia’s case and leaves his job and applies at The Grove so he can help her talk again and also to learn what led her to murder her husband.

I found the characters in the story quite enigmatic especially the character of Theo. For me, Theo’s character was quite selfish and self-centered. In my opinion, he just wanted Alicia to suffer like he did as he did not want to suffer alone in his misery. He wanted her to know that she is as unloved as he is. While Alicia killed her husband, we see that Theo too by the end did not live in peace and somehow killed his wife emotionally. Sadly, he ended up becoming exactly like his father whom he hated the most. While his father was physically and emotionally abusive, the novel to some extent suggests that Theo too becomes emotionally abusive and controlling towards Kathy as well. Moreover, we can see Kathy too became emotionally dead like Alicia as Theo says in the end,

“She hasn’t been working much in the past couple of years – and she’s become quite withdrawn, depressed even. Her doctor wanted to put her on antidepressants but I discouraged it. I advocated getting a therapist and talking through her feelings; I even offered to find her a shrink myself. But Kathy doesn’t want to talk, it seems. Sometimes I catch her looking at me strangely – and wonder what she’s thinking. Is she trying to summon up the courage to tell me about Gabriel and the affair? But she doesn’t say a word. She just sits in silence, like Alicia used to. I wish I could help her – but I can’t seem to reach her. That’s the terrible irony: I did all this to keep Kathy – I’ve lost her anyway.”

Hence Kathy too becomes emotionally dead like Alicia and Alcestis. I believe if Theo would have confronted Kathy about her affair it would have made things better for him instead of repressing his anger which later manifested itself in the worst form ruining so many lives.

Somewhere at the beginning of the story, Theo says, “Somehow grasping at vanishing snowflakes is like grasping at happiness, an act of possession which instantly gives way to nothing.” I believe Theo during all this time did not understand that he cannot grasp happiness or possess it by trying to take control of things that are beyond his control. He came to know about Kathy’s affair with Gabriel and he believed that his happiness was dependent on Kathy as he puts it, “Without Kathy I’d return to that empty, solitary existence I had endured before. I’d never met anyone like her again, never had that same connection or experience or depth of feelings for another human being. She was the love of my life – she was my life. And I wasn’t ready to give her up.” Hence, instead of confronting Kathy about the infidelity, he hid his feelings from her and took control of things that he had no control over. His total dependence or obsession with keeping Kathy with him led him to spy on her and see her with her lover every single day which instead of making things better only hurt him more and created feelings of jealousy which later made things worse. He could have simply communicated with her or would have ended the marriage and moved on but he decided to choose the wrong path. However, by the end of the story, I believe he did understand that he had no control over the things, and keeping Kathy who does not love him or is faithful to him anymore will not make him happy. In the last lines when the police officer tells him about Alicia’s diary that has incriminating evidence against him, he says,

“I listened, I looked up at the white clouds drifting past. Finally, they had opened – it had started to snow – snowflakes were falling outside. I opened the window and reached out my hand. I caught a snowflake. I watched it disappear, vanish from my fingertips. I smiled. And I went to catch another one.”

These lines either suggest that he did understand that he cannot grasp or possess happiness by controlling others or he smiled because he felt that now everything is in open, he is free from the guilt, and does not have to live a life of lie. It could also mean that he had not changed his ways and since one snowflake melted, which metaphorically means that his happiness is lost due to his controlling behavior, however, he still goes to find another one no matter how short-lived it is like he did in the case of staying married with Kathy, despite her infidelity.

Also, I believe silence or lack of communication was a major motif in this story. Alicia, after murdering her husband became silent, however, she did manage to communicate her emotions through her paintings and diary. So, she was a little stable yet I still felt bad for her. Theo, on the other hand, after knowing about his wife’s infidelity decides not to communicate to her about it. The only person he communicates to regarding this is his therapist Ruth who advised him to leave his wife, which he did not take, and chose silence over communication which led to the drastic actions he took that ruined so many lives including his own. Moreover, by the end of the story, Kathy who was once chirpy and lively chooses to remain silent which makes her a depressed person. All in all, in my opinion, the writer wants to indicate through this book that communication is a key to moving forward and dealing with problems that affect emotions and mental health. On the other hand, repression of any sort of emotion can only make matters worse as it did in the story.

There is no way I am not giving this book a five stars rating. It was truly a mind-boggling read. Loved how Michaelides uses Greek allusion of Alcestis which also serves as a symbol for Alicia’s character and helps the readers understand it in a better way. The book was a page-turner and I was hooked to it from the very beginning. However, I did not understand the character of Max Berenson. It was hard to comprehend whether he loved Alicia or did he really assault her as she mentioned in her diary? His character left me quite confused and I could not understand what to assume in the end when he was crying for Alicia.

Nonetheless, it was an excellent read. Haven’t read something this awesome in a while so I will give it five stars.