I’ve been reading Riley Sager’s books for a couple of years. It started with reading Final Girls in 2020 and slowly making my way through the rest of his backlist. Pretty sure they all have reviews on here, but it might be hard to find them since my links aren’t fully up and running yet.
When Survive the Night came out, it didn’t take long for people to start trashing it. Mainly, the idea that any woman would get into a car with a stranger while knowing that there’s an active serial killer on the loose.
Which is fair. I’d say “It was the 90s, people didn’t know better” but I’m pretty sure they did. Especially considering how many serial killers were active in American between the 70s-90s.
Though there was a ton of backlash around this book, I wanted to experience it for myself. It wasn’t enough to hear the people I trusted tell me that this was a badly written book. Oh no. I wanted to read it and see why it was bad.
Thankfully, my close friend, Ukamushu (@ukamushu_the_bibliophile), was on board to do this with me. And together, we suffered.
Title: Survive the Night
Author: Riley Sager
Pub Date: June 29, 2021
Book 3 of 2022
Reading Time: 3 hours & 33 minutes
Date Finished: January 31, 2022
Content Warnings: Murder, mental illness, death of parents, death of a friend, kidnapping, attempted suicide, attempted murder (I also put stupidity in as a joke but I don’t think it’s a joke anymore)
What Worked For Me: Minor script format, easy to read
What Didn’t Work For Me: Pretty much everything else
Let me start by saying that I think Survive the Night wasn’t so much a bad book as it was a poorly executed one. Sager pretty much only writes from the female perspective despite being a man, and that leads to certain issues.
Like whether a woman would get into the car of a strange man at night when a serial killer is loose. To any woman, that’s be a clear no-no. But to a man, it would probably be fine. And I think this book primarily suffers because it’s very clearly a man writing about a woman, thinking little about how women would handle this.
Had the main character thought about the dangers of this for more than fifteen seconds, this probably would have been a very different book. Or if the reasoning for her getting into the car made more sense, I think a lot of readers would have reacted differently.
Anyways, diving into Survive the Night itself. The story follows Charlie, a college students whose best friend and roommate has been killed by the Campus Killer. Feeling guilty, she decides to leave campus early and get a ride home with a man she doesn’t know. On the drive, she realizes that the man in the car with her might not be who he says he is.
Wow. Even typing out that premise hurt me. Months after reading this book and I still can’t make sense of how this managed to be a book this long. Like, you can see why it’s a bad idea, right? Getting into a car with an unknown man for a long, overnight drive?
I could write a whole rant specifically about why it’s a terrible decision to get into a car like that, but that would be way too many words to fit into this review.
A major problem that I had with Survive the Night was Charlie herself. She’s written as this super quirky and weird girl whom no one understands except for her equally quirky best friend. The difference is that Best Friend Whose Name I Don’t Remember is gorgeous and confident and everything Charlie isn’t. But the hottest guy on campus dates Charlie because she’s not like other girls.
It’s almost ridiculous how bad Charlie’s decision making skills are. Any time she gets a clear window to get away from Creepy Car Man, she decides against it for reasons that make little to no sense. EVERY TIME she can escape and clearly should, she gets back into the car quietly and then spends 30 pages lamenting that she got back in.
And all of it for what? Her bad reasoning that Creepy Car Guy isn’t sketchy? She regrets getting into the car almost immediately and still chooses to continue the drive when presented with other options.
Plus, the way her hallucinations are depicted makes it feel like…a weird way to make what was clearly mental illness into a quirky plot device. I wasn’t a fan of it. Generally speaking, I’m never a fan of mental illness being a plot device, but this bothered me more than usual.
It honestly didn’t do much to add to the storyline, which is why I think the whole thing could have been avoided. Except for a single occasion, I never thought that any of her hallucinations could be real. They were so obviously fake.
The point of it was to make her an unreliable narrator. Charlie wasn’t that at all. She was frustrating and lacked survival skills, but she was never unreliable.
In theory, Survive the Night playing on the “locked in with the killer” trope should have made for a really great story. I genuinely think it would have been a lot better if the execution and the plot had been thought through more.
By the time I’d reached the 20-30% mark, I was pretty much only reading to see how much more ridiculous things could get. All my hope that in redeeming qualities were gone. I knew by then that all my complaints were only going to get worse. And they did.
So little of the book made sense to me. Character motives, plot points, believability, all of it went out the window pretty early on. In no way did this align with my narrative paradigm and I’m glad that I know the proper word for it because it makes me a little less upset. At least I understand why I didn’t like it.
Not that I’ve ever liked a romance in a Sager book, but the one in Survive the Night irritated me more than usual. Not only did it have zero chemistry, it also had zero reason to exist. The story would have been better had there been no romance at all. That, at least, would have made sense to the plot.
The reveal was particularly disappointing. I’d gotten spoiled for it while watching Ellias’ video of his worst reads in 2021. Not that I minded being spoiled. Part of me thinks I would have been angrier if I didn’t already know the ending.
Because it didn’t make sense. None of it came together well. The whole reveal and everything that happened after felt like it was cobbled together after realizing that a final twist needed to happen.
There is so much about the reveal that I poked holes through. Take away one small thing and most of it would crumble. The pieces didn’t quite fit properly and yet I was expected to believe in what happened on the page. I wanted there to be some final twist that uprooted it all and gave me the answers I craved, but that never came.
Was there anything good about this book? Only the fact that I buddy-read it with Ukamushu and we had so much fun complaining to each other. She did a tab system in her book for different kind of dumb thing that happened and there were a lot of tabs.
It disappoints me that I was so let down by Survive the Night. I would say that I’m generally a fan of Sager’s work, having read all of his published books under this name. Not all of them were favorites, but they were all solid stories.
How it is that the author of The Last Time I Lied wrote this, I will never know. From one of the best mysteries I’d read in awhile to the chaotic mess that was this book. I almost said this was one of the worst mysteries I’d read in recent years, but that’s not true at all. There are worse ones out there.
Where I think Survive the Night gets mild redemption points is that it’s a good gateway book for people who aren’t familiar with the mystery genre or don’t want very complicated plots. It’s easy to read in the sense that it goes by quickly.
It’s not going to be the greatest mystery read of all time, but it has enough going for it that readers might want to pick up something better to see what else the genre can offer.
All that being said, I’m truly quite excited for The House Across the Lake, Sager’s new book that comes out at the end of June. I’ve requested an ARC, but if they see this review, it might ruin my chances of getting one.
Despite my strong dislike for this book, I want to see how Sager will hopefully change things around. That book already has one of my favorite tropes, a crime that may or may not have happened, and I think want to see how he puts his spin on it.
If I don’t get the ARC, I’ll probably borrow it from the library the moment I get a chance or begrudgingly pay for an expensive paperback here. I’ll get my hands on it somehow and cross my fingers that I’ll remind me why I enjoy Sager’s work so much.
Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an e-ARC of this in exchange for an honest review.