Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I love me some Gillian Flynn.  Her first two books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, are phenomenal.  I know I write a lot of negative reviews here, but these two books are fan-freaking-tastic and I have no hesitation in saying this.

I am, however, hesitant to say the same about Gone Girl.  Here’s why:   On the back of the book, the publisher has printed raving blurbs from Tana French, Laura Lippman, Arthur Phillips, KateChristensen, and Karin Slaughter (among others...scroll down beneath the jacket copy).  If you read them, you’re expecting the awesomest book ever—filled with psychological insight, biting wit, razor-sharp humor, and electrifying writing.  I don’t think that’s what you get here.  I might be the one who missed the boat, but reading these blurbs before I read the book set my expectations at a level the book could not meet.     

Here’s what the book is about.  Nick and Amy are a married couple celebrating their five-year anniversary.  But on that day, Amy disappears.  From the get-go, it looks like Nick might be to blame.  He protests and claims innocence, but everything from forensic evidence to Amy’s diary implicates him.  With only his twin sister to believe in him, Nick is sucked into a roller-coaster of a summer as he faces family and friends who all think he killed Amy.  Of course, this being Gillian Flynn, little is as it seems and we’re given hints at how things may unfold and what really happened on Nick and Amy’s fifth anniversary. 

Let’s start with what’s good.

The suspense.  Flynn kicks ass at generating suspense.  As the search for Amy widens and the cops find evidence that implicates Nick, you can’t help but be swept up in the gritty realism of it all.  You feel Nick’s shock when each new piece of evidence seems to damn him further.  You know someone here isn’t telling the whole truth (Nick?  Amy?  The cops?), but you can’t wait to see what happens.  The middle of the book is close to perfection, as chapters intersperse Amy’s diary with Nick’s present-day narration.  I read 200 pages in one night, racing to see what happened next.  Hardly anyone creates page-turning suspense as well as Flynn.    
Marriage, for Nick and Amy, is like this: an endless
struggle to be top dog.

The creepy feeling of watching a marriage go sour.  Being a married person myself, this was hard to take.  As you read the first half of the book, you get Nick’s perspective and Amy’s perspective.  You hear about how they met and fell in love, and how they both got laid off and moved to Missouri so Nick could help take care of his dying mother.  There are so many miscommunications and spoiled moments where pride, despair, or stubbornness kept Nick and Amy from connecting.  They grew apart.  But there were still flashes where you could see the old Nick or the old Amy.  You can sympathize with each of them, but you can’t help thinking the people they were did not have to turn into the people they are.  It’s chilling and sad and haunting. 

(SPOILER ALERT:  You will eventually find out that some, of not all of this backstory, is faked.  These are not truthful characters, to say the least.  Still, the first time you read it, before you know it’s fake, you still feel your heart breaking for the relationship gone bad.)     

Now, let’s talk about what might not be so good.

Some of the writing itself.  I know Gillian Flynn can write, and extraordinarily well at that.  But there were parts of this book that felt sluggish, sloppy, and overwrought.  That might be because she was allowing the characters to use their voices to tell the story.  Both Nick and Amy are would-be writers who haven’t done much writing at all; Nick is a laid-off magazine writer while Amy wrote personality quizzes for women’s magazines.  They think they can write, so it makes sense that their narration would be capable yet flawed with things like too many sentence fragments and comma splices.  The more flaws I started seeing in the writing, the more I kept hoping Flynn was allowing Amy or Nick’s flaws to show through.  But is this the case?  I can’t be sure, which makes me wonder how much editing the book received. 

Nick’s writing style also seems to change throughout the book.  On the very first page, he’s obvious and writerly about describing something as simple as getting up in the morning:  “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!  6-0-0 the clock said—in my face, first thing I saw.  6-0-0.  It felt different.  I rarely woke at such a rounded time.  I was a man of jagged risings:  8:43, 11:51, 9:26.  My life was alarmless.”  

This is a LOT of heavy-handed stylistic detailing just to say, “I woke up.”  This feels like a writer clearing her throat, trying to find the style her character will speak it.  It feels like something that should have been streamlined in the editing process but wasn’t. 

Compare this waking up to one that happens on page 354:  “I woke up on my sister’s couch with a raging hangover and an urge to kill my wife.”   Far simpler, far more effective, far less contrived. 

The first 60 or 70 pages of the book read like the first quotation.  It’s alarming, especially after reading Flynn’s two previous books, which are simple in the best way.  No extraneous words or sentences.  She’s sharp, so sharp it hurts.  Then you get to the first 70 pages here, and it’s like when you see someone wearing stripes, paisley, floral print, and polka dots all at once.  You just want to tell them to take something off and chill out.  Yes, it might be part of painting a portrait of a psychopath.  But until you reveal the character is a psychopath, your reader just thinks you’ve forgotten how to revise. 

The italics.  These characters use italics.  A lot.  It gets really annoying.  On page 20, Nick says, “Amy, I don’t get why I need to prove my love to you by remembering the exact same things you do, the exact same way you do…”  A paragraph later, Nick’s sister says, “I’m guessing—five years—she’s going to get really pissed…”  Are any of these italics actually necessary?  Do they change the meaning of the sentence in any way?  Or is it just a lame way of making the way characters enunciate their sentences a form of characterization? 

The dirty tricks.  Any time you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, as both Nick and Amy turn out to be, you have to be very careful.  You don’t want to deliberately withhold information from the reader unless the character has a good reason.  Yet Flynn does this.  

In the first half of the book, after Amy’s disappearance, we’re told several times that Nick carries a disposable cell phone in addition to his regular cell phone.  We’re told he makes and receives several calls on this phone.  But we’re never told to whom or from whom.  (This doesn’t come out until later.)  This is bad.  If the character is hiding crucial information from us (he is), why even mention the disposable phone before that secret is ready to come out?  Why include that stupidly tormenting detail in the first place and then hope the reader sort of forgets about it until later?  It would have been far more effective  to have Nick tell the reader:  "I know you’re upset that I’m not telling you who called.  You’ll find out later, I promise."  Use the “meta” moment for all it’s worth, as long as you’re going there.  Otherwise, it’s kind of annoying as well as unnecessary.       

The extraneous supblots.  This book is long.  Or, maybe it’s just that it starts to feel long toward the end.  There is a lot of set up.  A lot of time spent on subplots like the Blue Book Boys.  A lot of time spent with Nick’s sister, Go (a character who, ironically, goes nowhere).  A lot of scenes with Nick’s father, a woman-hater with Alzheimer’s.  This character is necessary, but the time spent on him and with him is probably not.  Overall, it feels like this book could have been tightened considerably.  Another couple of months, another 60-70 pages edited out could have made this an even better book.    

The ending.  The last hundred pages are weird.  Just flat-out weird.  Once I finished the book, I sat back and tried to imagine a different way to end the book.  But I had trouble with that, too.  I’m not sure where you go with a story like this.  The characters are so flawed and so troubled, that any ending seems wrong for them.  The ending they get feels too easy.  Everyone essentially gets off the hook.  Of course, getting off the hook is its own purgatory for these characters, but still.  I’m left with the feeling that the past 400 pages just got washed away, and this ending could have been arrived at with oh, say, 70 pages.  A novella. 

In the end, I think this book is a beautiful, blissful experiment in unreliable narrators who manipulate the reader and each other.  I’m just not convinced that the experiment worked.  I hate saying this, because I love, love, love Flynn’s first two books.  And I will be first in line to get her next book.  I just can't recommend this book as wholeheartedly as I did her first two.