Review: Watch Me

by Jody Gehrman (St. Martin's Press, January 2018)    

A small college town is the setting for this cinematic, literary thriller from Jody Gehrman. Suspense builds swiftly with many dramatic reversals and complex characters. Recently-divorced, thirty-something professor Kate Youngblood’s job security and personal boundaries are being challenged by a might-be-fatal attraction to Sam Grist, a talented, decade-younger student. Sam describes the college: “It’s the quintessential small, beautiful college. They’ve filmed seven movies here, and I’ve seen every one….It’s a sacred place, in spite of all the fucktards here. It’s sacred because it’s where I met you. I head straight to your office.”

The relationship between Kate and Sam develops in alternating first-person chapters wound tight as two strands of wire. Sam is an unreliable, yet charismatic narrator; he’s Holden Caulfield’s cousin or Humbert Humbert’s long-lost son. His interior dialogue is so crafty and delusional that it’s delicious to read.  There’s a delicate edge between desire and danger, and Gehrman hones this edge line-by-line, scene-by-scene so that I could not guess how the end would play out. Kate admits to herself, “If he hadn’t walked out of my office when he did, there’s no telling how far it would have gone. The heat rolling off him. It was like sitting next to a bonfire. All that impulsive, tormented energy. I felt more alive than I’ve felt in a decade.” One dramatic irony here is that Sam’s ambitions are being revealed as premeditated and dangerous. Not impulsive.

Watch Me juggles many metafictional elements. Both main characters are writers; they attend Mamet’s play Oleanna. One passage alludes to Psycho’s infamous shower scene. Sam surprises Kate with a first edition Lolita. Conversation is seasoned with dramatic references. “What do we know about first-person POV?” Kate asks during class. Sam replies, “It’s intimate.”

This novel showcases Gehrman—who has won previous awards as a novelist, playwright, creative writing professor—at the top of her literary game. Contemporary hot-button issues (childless-by-choice, sexual harassment, gun violence, school safety, addiction, racial identity, internet security, celebrity stalking, age-gap relationships) layer the drama in this psychological thriller. Fans of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, or The Good Girl will—if you dare—discover a tingling addition to the genre. Those who love literary women's fiction will find much to love. This review is based on an ARC from NetGalley. Disclaimer: I’ve taught college with author Jody Gehrman. Not at the campus portrayed in this novel!

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Karen Lewis