Book Review: “When I Was You” is more frustrating than thrilling

Warning: This review contains major spoilers for “When I Was You” by Minka Kent.

The book is marketed as a subtle, psychological thriller that will leave readers guessing, but the biggest question I was left with after finishing it was why on earth has this book received so much praise.

“When I Was You” is a new thriller from Washington Post bestselling author Minka Kent. It was released on February 1 and has since received over 900 5-star reviews on Amazon. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t live up to the hype.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about “When I Was You” is that it starts off so strong. The first third or so of the narrative sets up a gripping and suspenseful psychological thriller, only for the book to veer into a dull and predictable crime drama just before the halfway mark.

The story follows Brienne Dougray, a wealthy heiress living as a recluse in the wake of a violent mugging that left her with mental and physical health issues. The only person she can truly trust is her tenant and roommate, Niall, who handles Brienne’s crippling anxiety with grace and compassion.

Brienne’s life is thrown out of balance when she discovers there is another Brienne Dougray — a woman using her name and living as her. This other Brienne drives the same car, has the same haircut, wears the same clothes and has even friended her family on social media.

“When I Was You” is at its best when Brienne is playing detective, trying to discover whether this woman living as her is a case of identity theft… or one of paranoid delusion. Kent plays with the idea that Brienne is suffering from a mental break. For several chapters, readers are not sure which way the story is going to go, and the suspense kept me constantly turning pages.

And then, almost as if Kent got tired of sustaining the tense atmosphere she created, she pulls back the curtains, reveals the villain and his motives and throws subtlety and believability out the window.

Obviously, this is where I have to get into spoiler territory. Readers be warned.

Kent reveals the truth of what’s going on by abruptly shifting the book from Brienne’s point of view to that of the villain — who is, in fact, her roommate, Niall. It turns out, Niall is a distant relative of Brienne’s who feels he was cheated out of the family fortune. In order to get his revenge, he set up the imposter in an attempt to convince Brienne she was insane so he could empty her bank accounts while she was receiving in-patient care.

The remaining 60 percent of the book alternates between following Niall’s attempts to steal Brienne’s fortune and Brienne’s attempts to stop him.

Once the cat is out of the bag, the story instantly loses its tension and becomes much less compelling. Now that we know what’s going on, we know how the rest of the story is going to play out: Niall is going to be one step ahead, with Brinne desperately trying to stop him, right up until the very end when she’ll manage to triumph. And sure enough, that is exactly how the rest of the book goes.

Aside from this bizarre, mid-novel change in genre, “When I Was You” has several other serious issues, not the least of which is that both main characters are so unsympathetic that readers don’t really root for either of them.

Niall is so exaggeratedly cruel and self-centered that it comes off as cartoonish. It isn’t enough to steal Brinne’s money — he has to ruin her life while he’s at it. Readers want him to get caught not because we sympathize with Brienne, but because we really don’t sympathize with Niall.

For her part, Brinne is understandably anxious and timid given her backstory, but she does come across as whiny and apathetic sometimes. She’s also tremendously stupid. She finds evidence in her home that Niall is not who he claims to be, but instead of taking this evidence and her concerns to the police, she decides to keep playing cat and mouse by trying to beat him at his own game.

“Idiot plot” is a term that, according to critic Roger Elbert, refers to “any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.” “When I Was You” suffers from a bad case of idiot plot.

It is also explicitly stated several times throughout the novel that Brienne is wealthy enough that Niall could steal enough money to live on for the rest of his life and she would still be a literal millionaire. It’s hard to feel invested in Brienne getting justice when her life won’t be negatively impacted in any significant way even if Niall gets away clean.

Another issue I had with this novel is its depiction of mental illness and the mental healthcare system.

A key part of Niall’s plan to steal Brienne’s fortune involves him convincing her that she has Dissociative Identity Disorder (sometimes incorrectly called “multiple personality disorder”) and that “Brienne Dougray” is her alternate personality. A significant part of the story hinges on Niall checking Brienne into a mental hospital under this diagnosis and getting a whole team of doctors and nurses to believe that she has DID.

The problem with this is that Brienne’s behavior does not at all resemble DID symptoms — characters even mention this within the novel. It’s simply not believable that someone could be randomly checked into a mental healthcare facility without at least being evaluated by a psychiatrist first — and it’s even less believable that she’d be kept there if she wasn’t showing any symptoms.

All in all, “When I Was You” is a frustrating read that pushes the suspension of disbelief just a little too far. The book is most disappointing because of how much potential it shows in its early chapters. If it had been handled differently, this premise could have made for an excellent psychological thriller.

Rating: 2/5 Stars