Gillian Flynn’s sly and rippingly suspenseful novel, Gone Girl, is one of those novels it’s hard not to try and shanghai other people into reading, as in immediately. Flynn (Sharp Objects, Dark Places) lays down a vivid and plainspoken narrative that can read like the most jet-fueled of airport thrillers but is still bejeweled with sparkling asides and dead-on commentary. Her writing is, as needed, funny, perceptive, headslappingly honest, or sometimes an amalgam of the three. That this all happens in a book whose plot seems at first ripped from a Dateline NBC true crime episode is all the more impressive.
Flynn’s first narrator of two is Nick Dunne, a onetime magazine writer from the small Missouri town of North Carthage, who has moved back home about two years before the novel begins, with his wife, Amy. She serves as Flynn’s other narrator, answering Nick’s monologue with a series of diary entries, many of which were written long before the action begins, when the two of them were still living in New York. In both of their recollections, that was a golden time, when the two were making a living as writers in the big city. Many writers will twinge to read Nick’s recollection of when he first arrived in town in the late ‘90s:
“This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world—throw some kibble at it, watch it dance on its little leash, oh quite cute, it definitely won’t kill us in the night. Think about it: a time when newly graduated college kids could come to New York and get paid to write. We had no idea that we were embarking on careers that would vanish within a decade.”
Amy was a writer as well, even if her output consisted mainly of multiple-choice quizzes for women’s magazines. While Nick was an aspirational blue-collar boy from the weedy shores of the Mississippi River, Amy was one of those gold-plated, Girls-style New York girls, with famous writers for parents (they even created a bestselling children’s book series inspired by her), a trust fund, and a blithe disinterest in anything more than one step removed from her cosseted life.
Nevertheless, they fell in love with a combative fervor and were quickly married. Almost as quickly, it seems, they fell out of love; the work of it just became too much. And when the bottom fell out of their industry, and Nick’s parents started heading downhill, he moved them back to Missouri. It was then, just a few pages after the book begins, that Nick comes back to a wrecked house (one of those wall-to-wall carpeted McMansions that stood as almost some kind of rebuke to their old Brooklyn brownstone) and realizes Amy has gone missing.
The story at first is almost entirely Nick’s. We see Amy through his eyes, and the portrait darkens fast. A beautiful woman with high demands, she both utterly entrances and also deeply bothers him. There’s a lot of nicely-handled relationship detail here, the granular accumulation of discontent and the storing up of the kind of grievances that can scuttle the strongest of bonds. In between the lines exist whole other novels of what is not being said, at least at first. They are waging the war of the sexes, passive-aggressively, via a selection of avatars each has created to satisfy the fantasies each has of themselves and each other.
Amy is resentful of being yanked from the only world she ever wanted to know to a dying nowhere town where everybody shops at warehouse stores (Republicans at Sam’s Club, Democrats at Costco, she notes in one of Flynn’s many spot-on anthropological asides) and doesn’t seem all that enamored with people (like her) wearing their neuroses and needs on their designer sleeves. Nick, meanwhile, is portrayed (by himself) as a generally happy, trying-to-soldier-on guy who is juggling a couple jobs—teaching at a local college and running a small bar with his sister Margo, or Go—while trying to deal with his increasingly demanding wife.
While building her hall-of-mirrors spousal combat zone, Flynn is steadily plugging in new mystery-ratcheting plot elements. She prefers to deal at first in the volleying racket of Amy and Nick’s points-of-view and the accruing tension of the low-grade marital guerrilla warfare they have been waging for some years now. By the time that landscape has been well darkened, the twists start dropping in like pinpoint mortar rounds, each demolishing a clutch of preconceptions and concussing you forward.
Amy’s disappearance begins to mutate from a kidnapping into one of those chum-bait whirlpools that suck in increasingly large media whales (there’s a caricature here of a lynch mob-baiting Nancy Grace-type which is more vivid for being so sparingly used) and is destined to end in more than one book deal and at least a few civil lawsuits. For all of her skill at detailing the gathering storm of recrimination and suspicion that swirls up around Nick, Flynn smartly refuses to be distracted from her stars. This is a thriller, to be sure, with unlikely twists of fate and gobsmacking cliffhangers galore, but it’s also in many ways just a novel. Amy and Nick are as vividly and deeply rendered here as just about any characters to be found on bookshelves this year, and certainly more tragic in their stoppered guilt and fury.
Gone Girl has everything in it that matters for great fiction: pain, pathos, love, lust, and loss. It also features a sharper eye than we’re used to seeing for sociological detail, from the fine shadings of the Brooklyn literati to the habits of the Ozark redneck grifter. Most impressively, Flynn moves back and forth from its polar extremes of big city and small town, East Coast and Midwest, put-upon husband and demanding wife (or rage-prone husband and eager-to-please wife) without showing a particular inclination towards one or the other.
In the midst of it all, Flynn takes time out for some culturally astute and acidic asides, often in the service of spousal strife. Nick notes Amy’s slam on his hometown for being uncomfortably white, leading him to point out that her circle of friends in diverse New York included precisely one African-American. There is an especially notable essay-like screed by Amy against the pressure for modern women to do whatever it takes to please their man, due to the pernicious “Cool Girl” caricature perpetuated by “too many movies written by socially awkward men”:
“Hot and understanding, Cool Girls never get angry, they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner, and let their men do whatever they want.”
Flynn gets the voices right and the people right, no matter where she’s setting the scene or who she’s having us listen to. To do all that and still deliver a crackling page-turner shows a talent that is vanishingly rare, and sorely needed.