Published by Random House on 5th June 2012
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
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On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick's clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn't doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife's head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media - as well as Amy's fiercely doting parents - the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he's definitely bitter - but is he really a killer?
As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn't do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?
“I’m a big fan of the lie of omission.”
In what must be a first for me, I find myself almost wishing that I hadn’t read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl prior to seeing the film adaptation, my love for David Fincher be damned.
There’s something to be said, after all, for a viewing experience that promises one thing, then completely blindsides its audience by revealing itself to be something completely different. I have to give credit where it is undoubtedly due: the marketing team in charge of the novel’s Hollywood debut did about as good a job at keeping the narrative’s fairly substantial twists under wraps as the author did with her original manuscript.
Surprise, I think, is of utmost importance when it comes to enjoying Gone Girl. Despite how familiar its elements of the crime, thriller and mystery genres may be, Flynn manages to pull off something that I believed myself (and likely most other, well-read individuals) immune to: a genuinely surprising inversion of expectations. And it’s half of what makes her tale so much fun.
It is, however, also a bit of a double-edged sword.
With its first half (and I say this with perfect sincerity, because this book can be split almost precisely in two), Gone Girl fools you into believing that its story is a rather straightforward murder mystery: Who killed Amy Dunne? Or, perhaps more specifically: Did her husband Nick do it? And though it may not sound the most intriguing of premises, the premise’s simplicity works to its advantage. The alternating points of view – one Nick’s involvement (and increasingly apparent suspicion) in the investigation of his wife’s disappearance, the other a series of journal entries written by Amy that trace the evolution (its formation, its rise, its ugly descent) of her relationship with him – are replete with unpleasant and appalling little details that make the apparent predictability of the inevitable twist an acceptable (perhaps even unavoidable) weakness. If you cannot be original, after all, be sure that you can at least make your convention interesting.
“She was not the thing she became, the thing I feared most: an angry woman. I was not good with angry women. They brought something out in me that was unsavory.”
Flynn does this well, which is why the second half of the novel and its abrupt shift in direction is a difficult development to embrace. By answering the questions that predominate the book’s first several hundred pages and then promptly sending the characters down rabbit holes of unpredictable development and sudden reversals of personality (both personally and in relation to one another), Flynn gambles with your investment in her world and asks that you trust in her precipitous departures from what you have come to understand. It’s a risky gambit, as she essentially presents the reader with an entirely new story after hooking you with her original ideas. Your reaction will depend upon how kindly you take to being so blatantly manipulated.
Gone Girl seems a divisive sort of read as a result, and largely relies on whether or not you can play along with the author’s theatrics. Personally, I see them as a mixed sort of blessing. While the heightened spectacle (which flirts at times with becoming something dangerously akin to melodrama) of the novel’s final half keeps it undeniably entertaining and intriguing till the end, it also tarnishes the premise’s grounded, semi-believable start, which lends it a wonderful grittiness that the later showiness abandons.
It all comes together in a polarizing, love-it-or-hate-it ending that will be to the reader either a fittingly macabre conclusion to this grim, strange tale or an unsatisfying, mean-spirited final twist that kills much of the significance of all that came before. I place myself firmly in the former camp of thinking, but I do not begrudge anyone who may feel differently.
“I don’t feel like Nick’s wife. I don’t feel like a person at all: I am something to be loaded and unloaded, like a sofa or a cuckoo clock. I am something to be tossed into a junkyard, thrown into the river, if necessary. I don’t feel real anymore. I feel like I could disappear.”
Flynn, though, obviously knows what she is doing, and her competence helps smooth the various hurdles that she seems so fond of tangling her readers in. Her writing is thoughtful and smart, without reveling in unneeded flourishes or poeticism, and her characters are captivating to watch squirm and strain amongst her meddling hands, though at times they are perhaps too one-dimensional to function as truly relatable human beings.
It’s exciting, and it’s sure to shock you at one point or another. What more can you ask of a contemporary thriller?
Still, I wonder how my opinion of the film and novel pairing may have differed had I seen the former first. Plaudits to the promotional material released beforehand for doing such an excellent job in misguiding audiences and toying so thoroughly with their expectations. Such cons, whether they be a clever ruse or an unfair cheat in your eyes, certainly make for exciting movie-going, and storytelling in general. Given the overwhelming predictability of many a remake and sequel these days, stories like Gone Girl are refreshing to happen upon.
Congratulations are in order, then, for Ms. Flynn. I may forever be sore over her blatant bait-and-switch techniques, but I must commend her on her unpredictability. Deception lends itself well to her writing.
Though I doubt that I will ever be able to trust her again.