“Everyone knows it’s always the husband, so why can’t they just say it: We suspect you because you are the husband, and it’s always the husband. Just watch Dateline.”
Gone Girl, a mystery novel from author Gillian Flynn that explores the vicious depths of a toxic marriage, racks up as one of the most inventive, suspenseful mystery novels I’ve read in some time. This is the story of a disappearance of a beautiful, young married woman, Amy, who in her childhood was the subject/inspiration for an immensely popular series of children’s books called “Amazing Amy” written by her annoyingly doting psychologist parents. The books made Amy’s parents–Rand and Marybeth– extremely wealthy, and that wealth poured down to Amy in the form of a large trust fund that swelled to almost $800,000.
Rand and Marybeth always referred to the Amazing Amy series as a business, which on surface never failed to strike me as silly: They are children’s books, about a perfect little girl who’s pictured on every book cover, a cartoonish version of my own Amy. But of course they are (were) a business, big business. They were elementary-school staples for the better part of two decades, largely because of the quizzes at the end of every chapter.
Apart from making Amy rich, they also made her a celebrity. Now in adulthood, Amy’s life isn’t going so well. She married reporter Nick Dunne and their picture-perfect marriage came apart at the seams after they both lost their New York jobs. As Nick explains:
I had a job for eleven years and then I didn’t, it was that fast. All around the country, magazines began shuttering, succumbing to a sudden infection brought on by the busted economy. Writers (my kind of writers: aspiring novelists, ruminative thinkers, people whose brains don’t work quick enough to blog or link or tweet, basically, old stubborn blowhards) were through. We were like women’s hat makers or buggy-whip manufacturers: Our time was done.Three weeks after I got cut loose, Amy lost her job, such as it was.
With less than $100,000 of the trust fund left, Amy and Nick retreated to Missouri, back to North Carthage, his old home town. At the local college, he teaches journalism as an adjunct professor, and with the remnants of Amy’s money, Nick bought a bar which he operates with his twin sister, Go. While this move may have been necessary in their dire economic situation, it hasn’t improved things between Amy and Nick. She’s stuck as a haus frau in backwater Missouri ferrying Nick’s dying mother to chemo. Gradually Nick and Amy have drifted apart.
Gone Girl is split between two narrators: Amy and her husband of 5 years, Nick Dunne. For approximately the first half of the novel, Amy’s voice and her story is parceled out through diary entries which alternate with Nick’s version of events. This format shifts later, but that’s as much as I’m going to say. The novel begins on the day of Amy’s disappearance when Nick receives a phone call from a concerned neighbour that his front door is open and Amy’s beloved cat is outside. Nick rushes home to find signs of a struggle, and he soon finds himself accused of murdering his wife.
Right from the start, we know that Nick isn’t telling the truth. There’s something not quite right about his reaction to Amy’s disappearance, and he almost immediately becomes the prime suspect. Amy, who specialized in creating quizzes for magazines, left behind an anniversary treasure hunt for Nick, and each clue reveals just how well she understands her husband.
The novel covers the police investigation with the two detectives who vacillate back and forth on the possibility of Nick’s innocence. There’s also the dynamics of the search team–complete with groupies who are all-too-ready to console poor, lonely, good-looking Nick. Amy’s disappearance interests significant figures from her past, and while some ugly details about Nick begin to emerge, there’s an argument that Amy was “Amazing” in all the wrong ways. Things begin to look bad for Nick, and when a media frenzy begins, out of desperation he hires a well-known defense attorney, Tanner–a cynical man whose slightly sleazy, but wonderfully polished character leaps off the page. Tanner understands the power of the media along with the fact that “Americans love to see sinners apologize.”
Gone Girl is a page-turner–no argument there, and the twists and turns don’t stop. The book’s narrative power comes from its clever construction, and constructed any other way, the novel wouldn’t have worked in quite the same manner. As readers we begin with limited knowledge and then it’s doled out to us slowly. But how much can we trust the information told by an unreliable narrator–two unreliable narrators to be precise?
Gone Girl is well-written, wildly entertaining, suspenseful and packed full of terrific characters, but at the same time after I got past the halfway point, as a reader I began to feel manipulated. It feels strange admitting that–after all stories can be loaded with manipulation. Crime books frequently throw in red herrings, and authors often withhold essential information–we as readers sometimes have to be generous about a certain amount of misinformation before the crime is solved, but in Gone Girl while I admire the way the story was put together, at the same time I feel a little annoyed by it. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and I expect that Gone Girl will pick up awards on its way to being a bestseller, so perhaps I’m in the minority. My complaint is only going to make sense to those who’ve read the book–can’t reveal more without spoiling the plot.
On another level, praise must be given for the way in which the novel shows just how society likes narratives. Parts of the novel include the media frenzy that sweeps over Nick and the way in which narratives are forced onto the story of Amy’s disappearance. I found it impossible to read the book without recalling certain notorious cases that appeared in the news, and Amy and Nick’s story was in many ways a clever, gripping composite of these headline grabbers.