I’m probably the last person in the universe to getting around to reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, so let me preface this blog with: I finally got round to reading it after (and despite) being subjected to its enormous hype.
I’m also an aspiring book writer, so commercially and critically successful books invoke in me a complicated mix of envy and awe. Suffice to say, I wasn’t an entirely objective Gone Girl readerer.
The Cliff Notes version of this blog is I will concede Flynn is eminently talented and Gone Girl is fantastically wrought. It’s definitely worth a read. But does it warrant such breathy discussion as it’s inspired? My jury’s still out.
That annoying twist that everyone eludes to before saying, ‘But I can’t say any more without spoiling it’? I spent at least half the book going: Is that the twist? Because if it is, it’s not that great. Is that the twist? Because if it is, that’s not that great either. When it came about, I have to admit I thought not about how clever it was, but: Finally. Then: It’s not that ground-breakingly spectacular.
Had I not had so much forewarning there was a GIANT TWIST coming, I might have been gushing like everyone else did. Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not. I wouldn’t put this book quite in the hype-worthy, game-changing realm of something like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But it was solid in the way that solid is a compliment.
Love is the world’s infinite mutability; lies, hatred, murder even, are all knit up in it; it is the inevitable blossoming of its opposites, a magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood (Tony Kushner, The Illusion) is the epigraph setting the book’s theme. I rarely go back and re-read epigraphs, but Gone Girl’s was apt and striking, especially by the time I reached the book’s final page.
Flynn has an undeniably excellent way with words:
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily. I’d know her head anywhere.
It’s an ominous opening in a book that we know involves a woman going missing and her husband, the narrator, being suspected of having something to do with that disappearance.
My eyes flipped open at exactly six a.m. This was no avian fluttering of the lashes, no gentle blink toward consciousness. The awakening was mechanical. A spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the lids: The world is black and then, showtime!
It’s a recognisable and yet fresh way of describing a way of waking up. So is: ‘Sleep is like a cat: It only comes to you if you ignore it.’
But I’m getting ahead of myself. If you are, like me, coming late to the book, here’s what you need to know: Man (Nick) and woman (Amy) are married. They’ve relocated from New York to small-town Missouri, his childhood home, because his mother is terminally ill.
Native New Yorker Amy isn’t enjoying the move, and their relationship begins to fracture. Then she disappears the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. All clues point to Nick as the guilty husband. Except he’s not guilty (at least, that’s what he’s telling us).
Flynn uses the old unreliable narrator technique, which is one I’ve long found a little annoying. So I’ll not deny I wasn’t entirely involved in the plot—more aware of the practices she was using to red herring us readers and keep us tenterhooked. Likewise, the Amy-as-muse-for-books and warped effect that infused her relationship with her parents seemed a little contrived.
But I sound like a positive grump. I will say Gone Girl is smart. The cover art is minimal and great. The title is memorable and intriguing. Flynn’s writing is exquisite. The kind of cut-above that makes any and every other writer feel more utterly inadequate than usual.
She uses such words as ‘uxorious’ and, not packing it in my everyday vocabulary repertoire, I had to via a dictionary remind myself it stands for having, or demonstrating, a great or excessive fondness for one’s wife. I mean, with that definition, it is the most impossibly perfect word for this book. Which is why Flynn’s book is attracting the attention it is.
Gone Girl isn’t the first time Flynn’s writing has been lauded. Her first novel, Sharp Objects, won two CWA Dagger Awards and was shortlisted for both the CWA Gold Dagger Award and for an Edgar.
Her second, Dark Places, was a bestseller. So she released Gone Girl to a relatively established and rather rapturous audience. Not having read her previous two books, but basing it on the hype I’ve witnessed, I’m guessing this is her best work yet (feel free to correct me if this isn’t the case).
With passages like the below, I’m inclined to admit I’m impressed with Flynn’s writing (and impressed enough to want to check out her previous two books):
The camera crews parked themselves on my lawn most mornings. We were like rival soldiers, rooted in shooting distance for months, eyeing each other across no-man’s-land, achieving some sort of perverted fraternity. There was one guy with a voice like a cartoon strongman whom I’d become attached to, sight unseen. He was dating a girl he really, really liked. Every morning his voice boomed in through my windows as he analysed their dates; things seemed to be going very well. I wanted to hear how the story ended.
Flynn exquisitely captures the in-fighting and the gradual wearing away of each other that occurs in marriages. She blends that with the in-jokes and resentments and us-against-the-world-ness married life brings. ‘Who are you?’ the book asks. ‘What have we done to each other?’ They’re invaluable questions as the book reveals it’s possible to both know and not know the person you’re supposed to know better than anyone else.
I felt the backstory build-up to the big twist was too great, although my are-we-there-yet knowledge that the twist was coming up probably contributed to that. For others, it may have offered an enthrallingly detailed examination of a complex marriage between complex people.
Either way, Gone Girl inspires discussion beyond the page, which Flynn and her publisher oblige, offering bookclub questions at the back of the book—and solid, thought-provoking ones too. It also provides a Q&A with Flynn on her insights into the characters and tale and why she wrought them as she did.
Hindsight makes you a smart ass, but I have to say I’d probably have picked the twist even had I not been forewarned there would be one. Still, it’s not enough to temper my agreement that Flynn is a talented writer and Gone Girl—if you are, like me, in the not-yet-read-it minority—is one you should brave the hype and attempt to lower your expectations for, as you’ll likely find you really quite like it.