Known for writing 2013’s The Devil You Know and 2018’s The Con is On, screenwriter Alex Michaelides turns to novels with an impressive debuts. The Silent Patient is a psychological thriller centering around a patient who loses the ability to speak after she murders her husband in cold blood. Unfamiliar with Michaelides’ work prior to digging in, I took to The Silent Patient like a child with their new toy, curious and hoping it could live up to my expectations.
And it did just that.
The story follows Theo Faber, a criminal psychotherapist, who becomes obsessed with Alicia Berenson, a famous painter accused of murdering her husband. When the police come upon Alicia in her home, they find her drenched in blood in a botched attempt at taking her own life, unable to speak. Under a plea of diminished responsibility, Alicia is shipped off to a psychiatric hospital, where she’s lived for the past 6 years. As a crowning glory of this horrific circumstance, her last painting, titled Alcestis, was a self-portrait that seemed to confirm her guilt.
I absolutely love Greek mythology, having studied it in university. The story of Euripides’ Alcestis revolves around Admetus, king of Pherae, who wants to live past his predetermined death. In exchange for letting Admetus live, the Fates have but one condition: someone must take his place. Admetus searches fruitlessly throughout his city, only to discover his wife, Alcestis, is willing to take his place, an offer to which the king accepts. This is a clear commentary of how society viewed women back then, and even continues today.
By the end of the play, Heracles, an old friend of Admetus, snatches Alcestis from Hades’ hands to bring her back to Admetus. But Alcestis is unable to speak for 3 days before she can be fully restored. It ties directly to how Alicia is unable to communicate after the death of her husband.
A native of Cyprus, Greece, Michaelides weaves Greek mythology seamlessly throughout The Silent Patient. I was unable to put this book down, finishing it in a matter of hours. Michaelides has a magnetic writing style, telling the story from both Alicia’s and Theo’s perspective, leaving me hungry for the conclusion, only to be broadsided by the huge twist in the end. Even though the timelines aren’t linear, they play off one another beautifully, leaving you guessing until the very end. Michaelides’ natural storytelling comes through very clearly.
Theo himself admits he’s a flawed character, stating that his childhood had ‘fucked him up’ and is also the reason why he became a psychotherapist in the first place. Verbally and physically abused by his father, Theo learned to navigate his father’s mercurial temper by becoming obsessed with his studies, finally escaping to London to attend university. When Theo discovers his wife’s infidelity, he doesn’t confront her or even leave, but remains the cuckold while trying to help Alicia. He wants to help her ‘see more clearly’, as he tells her in their session. There is something about Alicia that resonates deeply within Theo – which is why he wants to save her. By doing so, he believes he’s also saving himself.
In life, we seek external relationships which are a reflection of what we’re missing in our lives. Instead of focusing inward, we obsess about our external environment, trying to control the outcome. Only, it doesn’t work that way because until we can heal ourselves, we’ll constantly attract the same unfulfilling relationship over and over.
The Silent Patient isn’t just a great debut effort by Michaelides, it’s also a mesmerizing read for anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers. There’s just the right amount of twists and turns, luring you in as the Sirens called to sailors in Greek mythology. The story has all the elements of a classic Greek play: love, betrayal, and death. As Theo comments about Alicia after meeting her, “Her silence was like a mirror – reflecting yourself back to you. And it was often an ugly sight”. Nothing could be truer.