Book review: “Gone Girl”
As long as we’re talking about books, let’s talk about another one I’ve read recently: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. (Can you tell I’ve been working through my “I-should-really-get-around-to-reading-that-someday” list lately?)
First, full disclosure: while I’ve read Gone Girl the novel, I have never seen Gone Girl the 2014 movie. This review is strictly about the book version; it’s possible that the movie version is different, better or worse in ways I can’t speak to.
Gone Girl is a critically hailed novel telling the story of Nick and Amy Dunne, a pair of aspiring young writers in New York who meet, fall in love, get married, and then discover that “aspiring young writer” is not the royal road to riches you might think. After losing their jobs in the 2008 economic crash they move back to Nick’s Missouri home town, which puts strain on their marriage as native New Yorker Amy discovers that there are people in America who drink soda pop omg and Nick gets in touch with his inner douchebag. One day Amy disappears, leading to an increasingly public investigation whose focus slides inevitably towards Nick the longer it goes on.
Then of course there is a SHOCKING TWIST that SHOCKS you with how TWISTY it is. This makes it hard to discuss Gone Girl without assuming that the people you’re discussing it with have already read it, since to do so you kind of have to give away the SHOCKING TWIST. Given that it’s been years since the book came out and a major motion picture based on it has come and gone, it’s highly unlikely that anyone who’s interested in it isn’t familiar with it yet; but nonetheless, if you are among the yet-unspoiled, consider this your official
♦♦♦ SPOILER ALERT ♦♦♦
Have both the people in the world who still need a spoiler alert for this book left the room yet? Good. Then we’ll continue.
OK, so it turns out that Amy actually faked her own disappearance to punish Nick, and that all the “Amy” diary entries we’ve read so far were actually written by her expressly to implicate Nick. Then she goes into hiding and gets robbed by hillbillies, and then she meets up with her old boyfriend Snidely Whiplash, who locks her away in a tower. Meanwhile, Nick realizes that she faked her disappearance, and hatches a cunning plan to get her to come back and face justice that consists of sobbing drunkenly in to a stranger’s Flip camera. It works, except for the “facing justice” part; she comes back, gets herself pregnant using semen Nick froze years ago, and uses the baby as a human shield. Reunited, Nick and Amy live happily (?) ever after, leaving a nation of angry readers screaming “THAT BITCH” and throwing their (hopefully softcover) copies of the book across the room.
I actually liked the first half of Gone Girl quite a bit: the writing was crisp, Flynn was able to switch effectively from writing in Nick’s voice to writing in Amy’s (both the saccharine, innocent Amy of the diary and the more hardened and cynical real Amy we meet later), and the plot never got so knotty it got in the way of telling the story. I even liked the reveal of the SHOCKING TWIST, which I thought was handled effectively and without taxing the reader’s credibility in the way the SHOCKING TWIST in an M. Night Shyamalan movie might do.
So I was surprised at how much I disliked everything in Gone Girl that came after the SHOCKING TWIST. When that TWIST happens, the book changes gears completely and goes from an incisive, introspective look at the lives of realistic characters into a pulp story where Amy is depicted as a cross between Hannibal Lecter and the Terminator, an unstoppable, unkillable machine for bringing woe to anyone who crosses her path. It’s understandable that Flynn would want to draw a bright line between “diary Amy” and “real Amy”, the Amy who could actually concoct a plot to drive her husband into the electric chair, but “real Amy” turns out to be so far beyond plain old everyday evil that only capital-E Evil can describe her. She stops being a character and starts being a cardboard cutout: “insert villain here.”
But the perplexing thing about that shift is that Flynn can’t seem to make up her mind about just what kind of a villain Actual Amy is. For much of the second half of the book she’s depicted as an evil genius, someone who’s capable of seeing potential threats and engineering plots to foil them literally years in advance. She’s the classic potboiler villain who’s always playing three moves ahead of everyone else. But then at other times we see Actual Amy behaving in ways that aren’t just stupid, but obviously stupid. She’s hiding out in the woods to prevent anyone from learning that she hasn’t actually disappeared… but then she goes out of her way to make friends with the people she meets there. She’s on the run and needs help from her ex-boyfriend, Snidely Whiplash… but she meets him in a casino, when casinos are notorious for having cameras recording every square inch of what happens on their premises. She hates Nick enough to construct an incredibly elaborate plot to ruin his life… but then she sees him one time on TV blubbering about how much he misses her, and decides that he’s learned his lesson and it’s safe for her to reveal herself. I could buy Actual Amy as an all-seeing supervillain, or as a clueless klutz, but whip-sawing us back and forth between both these characterizations only makes us wonder if Flynn ever understood Actual Amy as a character as well as she did Diary Amy.
Of course, Actual Amy isn’t the only character revealed in the second half of the book to be a colossal idiot. Nick takes a few turns on that merry-go-round as well. At one point, for example, he’s struggling to figure out how he can convince the police that he’s innocent and that Amy is trying to frame him. He goes back through her life and finds three different people who had the exact same experience with her in the past — they were her friend, but she decided they had betrayed her, so she concocted elaborate plans to ruin their lives. All three are even willing to tell their stories to the cops to help him out! But he (and, even more mysteriously, the local cop who’s been on the case since the beginning) decides that this isn’t enough evidence, so there’s no point in bothering to bring it to the police, or even the media. Yes! All three just get dropped from the story without making the slightest bit of difference — except perhaps to further hammer home to the reader that Actual Amy is Capital-E Evil.
Watching Nick drop all those witnesses without even trying to make use of their testimony made me feel like Marge Gunderson in Fargo: “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there.”
And then there’s the ending, which a lot of people seem to have found upsetting but which mostly just left me cold. I don’t expect the good guys to win in every story; indeed, it can be interesting to read a story where the bad guy gets away with it by cleverly outmaneuvering her pursuers. But Gone Girl‘s ending isn’t that clever. It’s more just a collection of possible ways for Nick to bring Amy’s scheme crashing down, each of which Amy turns out to have foiled long in advance during one of her “all-seeing supervillain” episodes. Then Nick just sort of gives up and collapses into passivity, leaving Amy to win more or less by default. That’s not necessarily out of character for him — we’ve spent the whole book seeing how he fell into the life he was leading, rather than ever actively choosing it — but it’s weird to see a character the book has been building up sympathy for just sort of flop over like a puppet whose strings have been cut. It’s anticlimactic.
So should you read it? If you’d asked me halfway through, I’d have said unreservedly that you should. Flynn’s a skilled writer, and the slow reveal of what’s really going on as you read is more than enough to keep the pages turning. But then you hit the SHOCKING TWIST and the book becomes less like a unified narrative and more like an explosion at a paperback factory, with smart characters suddenly becoming dumb, realistic plots becoming ridiculous, and just generally everything roaring wildly out of Flynn’s control and flying every which way at once. So I’m a bit mystified at how positive all the reviews were, and how much some people seem to love this book. It’s a high-wire act where the aerialist can’t make it all the way to the other side.