“Book Review: Somebody’s Watching You”
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A creepy cult grabs hold of a fortysomething married couple in this tantalizing tale of unease
Robin D’Amato’s novel Somebody’s Watching You is an immersive story of a woman who is pressured to join a cult against her better judgment. Her life becomes a nightmare as she is stalked and harassed, and readers are held in suspense as they wait to discover whether the woman’s patient strategy will succeed and if love will win out.
The novel is told from the point of view of Melody, a designer who has lived on Long Island all her life. She has been married for a decade, but things aren’t looking good. Her husband Jeff, a former radio DJ, has become clinically depressed and doesn’t do much anymore. Wanting to help him, Melody gives up her own job for six months and even quits jogging so she can spend more time in their house in Floral Park.
Jeff perks up one day when a devotee of the local Church of Philomathics speaks to him for hours and gives him a book by the cult’s founder. As a result, Jeff signs up for a three-week program: vitamin supplements, manual labor, sauna. His meetings and his readings increase as time goes by.
Meanwhile, Melody supports whatever might be “floating Jeff’s canoe these days.” She knows from the beginning that it’s a cult, but she reads the books and agrees to engage in the Church’s introductory evaluations in the hope of understanding and maintaining intimacy with her husband.
The tenets of Philomathics are left vague. It’s the the cult’s behavioral standards that make us watch closely, that make us keep an eye on what we know is going to go wrong.
The Church frequently passes judgment on its new and established members and advises them to choose what it calls “rationality” over “impulse;” that is, it demands compliance. The Church isolates its followers, requiring them to completely break off personal contact with critics, even if that involves rejecting their own family members.
Melody assumes the rules don’t apply to her. Despite her regular participation in the Church, she views herself as “a complete, I-never-wanted-to-do-this-in-the-first-place non-believer.” She participates only to understand what her husband is involved in. Since in her heart she’s not a true member, she fails to imagine she could be punished as a defector.
There are a whole lot of positives in this novel, but I can’t get started talking about them without acknowledging the best of them all first: telling this story from Melody’s perspective and convincingly portraying her ambivalence toward the cult.
She knows it’s a bad deal, but she’s stuck. With the Church, her husband behaves like an android, but without the Church, he barely gets out of bed. She receives a few reality checks from friendships and external relationships, but it’s up to her in the end to resist the cult’s influence in her life.
From the beginning, it’s obviously a no-win situation for her, since the cult, on its own principle, will ultimately refuse to work with her husband unless she joins too. Melody wants to have it both ways: letting the cult lift Jeff’s spirits while she pretends to be open-minded and cordial to the cult members, and while telling herself she will never truly join. This setup showcases a realistic human response, and for creepy thriller novels like this one, it’s a terrifically effective characteristic.
However, I do wish Melody had a stronger vision and drive in here. On some level, she must know that the day will come when the cult will make its ultimatum and that she will have to ask Jeff to abandon the cult. But she doesn’t act firmly with that outcome in mind. To a large degree, she continues as a passive observer, and we must hope simply that her husband will return to his normal self, an outcome which of course she does not control. She explores the cult to understand what he’s involved in, but she doesn’t deeply question why it appeals to him or how deeply it has sunk its teeth in him.
But beyond that, the novel is a hit. Not only are the thriller aspects truly suspenseful, but the motivations are constantly believable. While Jeff is in rough shape in the beginning of the book, his original personality glimmers here and there, allowing us to witness just what it is that makes he and Melody click. Amidst all of the palpable danger, this novel takes readers on an empathetic journey with a likeable couple. We get to see how Melody finds joy in her marriage and what sets them apart as a couple merely trying to make it.
As their relationship ebbs and flows, the feeling of unease builds up. The temperature starts in the lukewarm bath of Jeff’s depression and before long nears the boiling point. Melody puts up with being stalked by a strange man who follows her around town. Cult members call her multiple times a day, asking her to increase her commitment. One in particular rings the couple’s doorbell every day, looks through the windows if no one answers. The stakes are constantly rising all the way up until a page-turner of an ending.
Robin D’Amato’s Somebody’s Watching You is a suspenseful psychological thriller that will surely appeal to readers who enjoy a creepy element to their fiction.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Category: Psychological Thriller
Print Length: 242 pages
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