New novel sets big goals, fails to deliver sensitivity: Reality show inspired morality tale flattens complicated characters in overwrought plot, shock factor

Cover of Every One is Watching
Courtesy of Heather Gudenkauf

Heather Gudenkauf’s novel “Every One is Watching” is a “locked-room thriller.” If you have not heard of it yet, that might be because it was published in March of this year. I wanted to read something recently released, and this book piqued my interest the most. 

A brief hook: Five “random” people of varying levels of fame are chosen to be players in a new game show called “One Lucky Winner” where ten million dollars are at stake. The players slowly realize that there may be some connection between them. Each character is a “bad” person, as in they have committed crimes or actions considered morally wrong.

I found most of the characters were relatively one-dimensional. I cannot honestly say that I got attached to any of them, or that I cared how the book ended. They all had about one personality trait that defined them, and had no real character development over the course of the novel. They also did not learn anything throughout the story — the author relied too heavily on her plot to drive the story, and let quality character-building get lost in the process. 

Diving into the plot, the first thing that caught my attention was the way Gudenkauf used real contemporary company names, which is a huge pet peeve of mine. In my opinion, a book abandons an attempt to be timeless by mentioning “Instagram” by name. I cannot explain why this bothers me so much, but reading the word “TikTok” in a thriller novel takes me out of the experience. I understand that the plot itself called for some mention of social media, but something in me just hated seeing a direct reference. 

Another thing deeply bothered me were the lighthearted mentions of sexual assault. One of the main characters recalled a scene in which assault was present and went into distasteful detail. It could have been more meaningfully written if Gudenkauf felt it was vital to the plot, but in my opinion, it was not meaningful or necessary. Every situation where sexual assault was either mentioned or described made me feel that the author was unprepared to write about such a heavy topic, and that the whole thing was just for shock value. Gudenkauf could be trying to make a statement on how famous, rich, powerful people can get away with doing terrible things, but it would have been much better received on my end if the whole topic were handled with more delicacy. 

I thought it was unpalatable that the whole story surrounds a collection of “bad” people. I use quotation marks because the majority of the players in the reality TV game had kept secrets or committed minor crimes or moral infractions such as having affairs, perpetrating tax evasion, even accidentally getting someone killed. Throwing in a character who committed something as serious as assault feels insensitive.

I have been focusing primarily on the negatives, so here are some positives. For one, “Every One is Watching” definitely got me hooked, albeit about halfway through. It was about a reality TV show, and it felt like watching one. No matter how terrible reality TV shows get, they are still usually entertaining.

I understood what the book was trying to do: keep readers on the edge of their seats by presenting a thrilling situation that speaks to questions of justice in a plausible fashion for today’s technology-driven world. Not every novel has to be a complex intellectual exercise, but this one just was not emotionally affecting in any way, and will not be a piece that sticks with me. If the book still sounds interesting to you, give it a read and form your own opinion!

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