Book Club: Survive the Night by Riley Sager

For October, I was looking for something a little different from my usual book picks. I wanted something maybe a little spooky and full of mystery, so it seemed like the perfect choice when I stumbled on Survive the Night by Riley Sager. 

The premise has a lot of potential. Set in the ’90s, what would happen when a girl was trapped in a car with a stranger who just might be a serial killer? There will be spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t read the book yet, be warned. 

(If you’d like to check it out, head on over to the publisher’s website!)

What worked

I really did enjoy Survive the Night. It wasn’t the perfect book, but it was fun, and once it got going, boy, did it get going. I picked out a few things that I liked the most to highlight what makes the book special.

The unreliable narrator

First off, I have to talk about Charlie. Our main character. Our quirky movie nerd who is struggling so hard to live (in more ways than one). As a person, I admit that Charlie is only so so. Would I be friends with her in real life? Probably not. She’s overly dramatic and pretty snobby when it comes to her one interest in life. As a narrator, though, Charlie is fascinating.

As we learn more about her, we understand just how unstable her mental state is. The “movies in her mind” warp reality whenever things get tough, which means not even she always knows if what she’s experiencing is real or not. 

Her obsession with escapism is understandable. Within four years, she has to deal with the loss of both parents and her best friend. I can get why she might not want to take her meds which turn off the hallucinations. The “movies” are her coping mechanism. They both save her life and endanger it. 

I personally really enjoy being in the same state as Charlie, where you’re not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t. Can we as the audience trust what she’s telling us, or should we be taking everything with a grain of salt? It’s a refreshing and unusual experience while reading a book. Normally the audience has the most knowledge of what’s going, but this time we’re constantly guessing.

The different perspectives

Even though Charlie was the main narrator, it was cool that we got to see small peaks in the minds of some of the other characters. Even with seeing things from their perspectives, Sager was very careful not to reveal anything that we hadn’t learned from Charlie. 

So even though Jake ended up not being the killer, we didn’t know that definitively until Charlie did. Same thing with Marge’s bathroom scene. I really thought she was just concerned for Charlie. Nothing in her thoughts betrayed her true intentions.

That kind of writing is extremely intentional, and I really applaud Sager for it. Going back and re-reading some of those scenes, you could tell how careful Sager was. You could pick out the ambiguity of the characters and their intentions, but they didn’t give anything away.

The ending

Any good mystery must have a satisfying ending; otherwise, the whole thing is just ruined. I’m very pleased to say that Survive the Night has a very satisfying ending. We were questioning reality the whole time, so it seemed impossible to throw us for a loop, but Sager managed to do it by revealing that everything, up to the very last chapter, was actually a movie.

It was also nice to see that Charlie is doing well for herself. Not only does she get to work closely with the old movies she was so obsessed with in college, but she also has a healthy relationship with Jake and has even worked hard to improve her mental health. Her mental health has improved so much, in fact, that she actively rejects the escapism she used to cling so desperately to.

Knowing that all the dramatics were probably made up to be part of the movie was a huge relief. Life is usually more toned down than movies, in part that is confirmed by Charlie, who laughs to herself at the changes made from her “real” story in the movie adaptation. 

What drove me insane

Now I did like Survive the Night a lot; the twists were refreshing and unique. That doesn’t mean I liked everything about the story, though. There were a few things that really bothered me about the book.

The characters 

Most of the characters in the book were, how do I put this, terrible. They were overly dramatic, selfish, unwilling to see past their wants, or unable to see how their actions affect others. I will give Charlie a pass because she was badly traumatized, but the rest of them, especially Marge, were really annoying.

Knowing that the whole thing was a movie does lessen how annoyed I am. Movies are supposed to be over the top and dramatic. If there’s one thing that Charlie drilled into my head while I was reading, it’s that movies depict everything as more than they actually are.

Maddy

Charlie loved her movies, but I’d say there was one thing she was obsessed with almost as much as them, Maddy. Which okay, Maddy was her best friend. She’s allowed to be upset about her death. Except Maddy wasn’t a good person, even in Charlie’s memories.

I kept waiting to hear something that she had done that was kind or good or something to indicate she was a good friend to Charlie. All I heard was that she lived as if she were larger than life and loved to take advantage of her introverted friend.

Early on in the book, I had even thought Charlie was the killer and had killed Maddy after some kind of psychotic break. That’s how obsessive Charlie’s thoughts were. I can see how your thoughts might revolve around your one friend if they’d been recently murdered, and you felt insanely guilty over it, but still. Even in the memories of the past, Charlie’s life seemed to revolve around Maddy.

Even with how much Charlie thought about Maddy, though, the picture I got was just a caricature of a person. Someone who couldn’t possibly be real and didn’t seem to have real emotions or thoughts. 

The picture of Maddy given to us by Charlie seems so fake. If they were real people, I would even say their relationship was an unhealthy one where Maddy was placed on a pedestal and took advantage of Charlie.

The one time Charlie stood up for herself, and she told Maddy “no,” Charlie was severely punished. Because the one time she stood up for herself, her best friend didn’t survive the night.

The killer’s motive

The question on everyone’s mind as soon as the killer’s identity was revealed must have been, “why Maddy?” I know it was on mine. So it was a relief when Charlie asked the same question point-blank. What I wasn’t expecting was the killer’s response. 

I know the story was set in the 90s, which was a “different time” or whatever, but the killer’s motive was surprisingly sexist. I admit he never says anything explicitly sexist… He also never targets men or ever says anything to include men as his targets either, though. Then there’s the fact that he thinks exclusively about women when insulting people who “aren’t special.” He usually uses sexist language to describe his female victims too.

There was also the weirdness of the killer being so obsessed with people who were “special.” He doesn’t really define what being “special” means, but subtext leads me to believe that he means people who are neurodivergent. (AKA suffering from some form of mental illness.)

There are only two characters we know he considers “special.” First, there’s Charlie, who we know suffers from a minor form of schizophrenia. Then there is the killer himself, who I suspect- as someone who is not a mental health professional- has antisocial personality disorder. (APD is a common disorder among sociopaths.)

My rating

There were a lot of things that I liked and some things that I didn’t about Survive the Night, but I’m happy to say that the ending smoothed over a lot of the things that annoyed me and made the whole story worth the read.

I give the book 4 out of 5 teeth.

If you’re looking for something less intense, check out one of our previous book club picks!

If you were in a car with a killer, how would you escape?

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