Alicia Berenson loved her husband. This is obvious in the opening chapter of the “The Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides, which is an excerpt from her personal journal. All she wants to do is love him and please him; the journal writing was even his suggestion. She paints herself as a devoted wife and artist, albeit whom is struggling with some insecurities of her own.
Flash forward six years: Alicia murdered her husband Gabriel shortly after that excerpt was written. He was bound and shot five times; Alicia was found with the murder weapon at the scene. She refused to speak to the officers and detectives. She was arrested, but it was by the intervention of psychotherapist Dr. Diomedes that she was found clinically insane and institutionalized at his facility, The Grove.
She remains a patient at this facility. And she has not spoken a single word since that day. Not one word in six years.
Her only communication has been through a single piece of art. She painted a nude self-portrait and titled it “Alcestis.” This title befuddles her doctors but will later become an important clue to her mental state and to the murder. Alcestis was a Thessalonian queen in Greek mythology that sacrificed her own life for that of her husband’s; you can read more about the story and its variations here.
So how does a loving wife and artist turn into a silent murderer and patient?
That is what our narrator, Theo Faber, is intent on finding out. He is a psychotherapist and new employee at The Grove who believes he can save Alicia. He even applied for the position at the institution just to work with this patient. He immediately insinuates himself in her treatment, much to the chagrin of her current doctors. He pushes professional boundaries and takes risks, but we are led to think that he is doing this all for Alicia’s well being. But are Theo’s intentions pure?
Theo’s life seems to mirror Alicia’s: he is happily married to his wife Kathy, whom he describes as the love of his life. He had a troubled childhood; we discover through later journal entries that Alicia also suffered in her childhood. He rose to success in adulthood and found happiness; so did Alicia. But our readers noticed that there is a level of obsession with Alicia and her case that made us question Theo’s motives and actions.
The chapters vary between the past and the present, which can seem confusing to the reader. But this is part of Michaelides point; this story is about both the past and the present, which reveals itself as Theo simultaneously dives deeper into Alicia’s therapy and his own life.
Eventually Alicia begins to talk to Theo. She starts with her childhood and builds up to the night of her husband’s murder. She explains that a man broke into her home and tied her up; when Gabriel arrived home, he attacked him, bound him, and shot him six times in the head. This does not match up with the crime scene evidence though. Is Alicia still lying? She gives Theo her journal, which she has continued to write in, and their session ends.
The remainder of the book reveals the killer, the motive, and more about both Alicia and Theo. I wish I could tell you – it’s a nail biter! – but you will have to read it for yourself. My favorite part of this book was the way Michaelides ties together the story of Alcestis with Alicia. If you know the myth, you may have a clue to how this story ends.
Come back next month – we are reading Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. And if you want to join our online book club, find us on Facebook at MilMB Book Club!