When I Was You, by Minka Kent, begins with the story of Brienne Dougray, a woman who is recovering from a brutal attack which has left her with severe migraines, memory loss and neurological issues. She is so disabled and traumatized that she almost never leaves the Queen Anne Victorian home she inherited from her wealthy grandparents. To compound her difficulties, she’s inexplicably lost all of her friends since her attack, leaving her with only her boarder, handsome and compassionate Dr Noah Emberlin, to depend on when she needs care.
Niall is a somewhat mysterious figure himself, an oncologist at the local hospital who also seems to have few friends and sends Brienne decidedly mixed signals about what he wants from her. Is he a friend who pities her and gets carried away sometimes, so his attentions are easily mistaken for romantic? Or does he have feelings for Brienne, but thinks he should hold back because of her health status?
With little to do during the day but think about her tennant, Brienne obsesses about where her relationship with Niall might go and what every little gesture might mean. But soon, she discovers evidence that there’s another Brienne Dougray in town, which gives her a new focus for her obsessive tendencies. She finds that the other Brienne bears an uncanny resemblance to her, shares the same tastes and is slowly taking over the life Brienne lost in her attack.
This new knowledge wakes up a part of Brienne that’s been asleep for the 6 months since she was assaulted. She has something concrete to focus on instead of vague fears that she might be attacked again by nameless enemies. Brienne throws herself into figuring out what’s really going on around her and exactly who is involved in the conspiracy. What she discovers takes her in a surprising direction that I won’t spoil.
Minka Kelly is a Washington Post best selling author who has written several psychological thrillers. She’s mastered the genre, if this book is anything to judge by. The first person narration switches between Brienne and Niall, with part 1 giving the reader Brienne’s perspective, then part 2 moving to Niall’s. Part 3 brilliantly moves back and forth between the two characters as the action heats up, so that readers can understand the thoughts of the main characters as they drive the action. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished for this very thing in books!
Even though the backstories and thought processes of the two main characters are thoroughly explored by the end of the book and the plot keeps moving forward at a steady pace for the entire ride, Ms Kent still keeps the reader guessing right up until the end. The unexpected plot twists and new character revelations that arrive late in the game make perfect sense with everything that’s come before, something I can’t say of every thriller I’ve read. The characters and the plot unfold like origami, revealing their secrets and keeping the reader turning the pages until you realize you’ve accidentally stayed up all night. The satisfying conclusion makes it worth the lost sleep.
But there was a character or two that I was left thinking about, wondering if their story might be continued someday. The novel is a bit open-ended, so that I could see it being the beginning of a trilogy. And I had a couple of questions that weren’t answered, about some coincidences. Which isn’t a criticism of the book at all, if it remains a standalone. There were simply alternate endings I had in mind that weren’t ruled out by what was written and one character in particular I’d like to follow up with.
When I Was You touches on themes of friendship, loyalty, identity theft, violent crime, gaslighting, several forms of domestic violence and abuse, abandonment, loneliness and loss, family, mental illness, addiction, recovery and bodily autonomy. It can get very dark as it delves inside the twisted thinking of the various villains. None of the characters come off as completely innocent and trustworthy and neither of the narrators is completely reliable.
All of this adds to the complexity of the story, if you’re up for the deep dive inside troubled minds, within the classic setting of a beautiful old house. Eventually, I want to read it again to see if I come to same conclusions about the ending as I did the first time and if there are clues that I missed. But first, I’ve already started another of Minka Kent’s books.