I’m turning now from haunting books that deal with violence and man’s inhumanity to man on a global level (The Hunger Games trilogy, The Sandcastle Girls, and Unbroken) to a novel that haunts because of the violence and inhumanity within a family. Gone Girl, a bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn, focuses on a most unfortunate marriage.
The novel opens with the wife, Amy Elliott, gone . . . disappeared on her fifth wedding anniversary. There are signs of a struggle, and her husband, Nick Dunne, is suspected of murdering her, as most husbands are when a wife goes missing. From that beginning, we follow author Flynn down an increasingly circuitous path of psychological intrigue.
If you open the book [I read the ebook, with a table of contents], you know immediately that Amy will reappear. Between Nick’s discovery of Amy’s disappearance and her reappearance, we learn the history of their five year marriage from both Nick’s and Amy’s perspectives.
Or do we?
This is a book that presents the ultimate in the unreliable narrator. In fact, we have two of them. Can we trust either Nick or Amy to tell us the truth about their relationship?
From the reader’s perspective we walk down one path with one spouse, then down another path with the other. Both Nick and Amy are believable, sympathetic.
Until we hear about them from each other’s point of view. Then we wonder what to believe.
From a writer’s perspective, the book haunts because of the difficulty that Flynn set herself in creating a mirage of truth and fiction within her fiction. One unreliable narrator is hard enough to write well; creating two is an extremely difficult task.
Neither Amy nor Nick is a likeable character, another reason why the book haunts the reader. Usually, readers want a protagonist they can cheer for. In this book, we think we have someone to like, then we don’t, then we have another. Ultimately, we see both spouses’ vulnerabilities. But does that make them likeable?
What started (maybe) as a fairy-tale “happily ever after” marriage becomes a battle worse than the one depicted in the movie The War of the Roses.
Or does it?
Which spouse behaves more egregiously toward the other? Which spouse was the most wronged? The most manipulative? Which spouse chooses the worse retribution? And what do you think of the ending – was it a resolution or a continuation?
I’ve read another book by Flynn, Dark Places. I didn’t like the characters in that book either, though it was a more conventional murder mystery in its plotting. When I finished Dark Places, I shuddered at the resolution of the murder, and moved on.
But at the end of Gone Girl, the first thought I had was “Well, at least my marriage isn’t like that!” Whatever problems I might have in my family relationships, they are normal problems. Anyone who isn’t a psychopath will come away from Gone Girl relieved at the normalcy of life, even at its most stressful.
And yet, what would it take for each of us to become as messed up as Amy or Nick? What economic and/or societal pressures might push us over the brink? What real or imagined cruelties and betrayals within a relationship might cause us to harm someone we once thought we loved?
And because it left me with those questions, Gone Girl joins the ranks of my haunting reads this year.
Next week, the last of my haunting books for October . . . another psychological thriller.