You’ve heard the story before. A perfect couple is happily married; husband works while wife stays home. One day, when husband arrives at the house, his beautiful wife has disappeared. Police investigate and the media descends, but we all know exactly who the villain is.
Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” is not that story.
It has some of the same trappings of that story. Nick and Amy Dunne live quietly on the banks of the Mississippi River. He owns a bar and teaches at a junior college, and she keeps house. They are both beautiful, smart, and desirable. But beneath the surface everything about their lives is … well, it’s not immediately disturbing. But it’s just off-kilter enough to make you wonder what exactly goes on behind closed doors. Nick and Amy used to be successful New York magazine writers, but were laid off as the rise of internet journalism rendered their careers defunct. They moved to a dreary, economically depressed Missouri town to take care of Nick’s sick parents, and have been stuck there for more than two years. They’re running out of money, patience, and time. And on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears.
I don’t want to tell you much more about “Gone Girl” because it is one of those rare books where knowing nothing before diving in is truly the only way to read it. Yes, yes, we live in an era where “no spoilers!” is a rallying cry, but most (good) stories still work when you know some major plot points. “Harry Potter” can be read even while knowing that Dumbledore dies, and Spielberg’s “Lincoln” remained fascinating despite having a rather well known ending. But “Gone Girl” is a book that preys on preconceptions and assumptions, only to rip the rug out from under you repeatedly. Never before have I considered myself prepared for a twist and been caught so off guard. Even the simplest revelations hit like a ton of bricks, since Flynn manages to render both Amy and Nick (who tell the story with alternating POV chapters) so cleverly that you find yourself trusting each one completely. Their perspectives are so clear that you believe — and want — each one to be correct, despite that being impossible.
In addition to creating two beautifully distinct narrators, Flynn has a knack for injecting dark humor into what otherwise might be a straightforward, deadpan thriller. She writes jokes that elicit a laugh only to make you wonder what has to be wrong with you to find such a thing funny. Nick cracks jokes about how unlike the murderous husband stereotype he is even though he’s repeatedly fantasized about strangling Amy. Humor is one of the many ways that Nick and Amy win us over, and even when the humor gets disturbing, we’re still drawn in. They wield their intelligence and wit as tools of seduction, and by the time you realize it, it’s too late to turn back. You’re in too deep.
Throughout “Gone Girl”, Flynn repeatedly asks questions about authenticity, both in how we view and present ourselves. Nick is witty and seems to share a good relationship with his twin sister, but remembers every slight and lets his resentment build up internally. In the opening of the novel, he coldly describes how well he knows the shape of his wife’s skull; how he could recognize it anywhere; how he wishes he could open it, unspool her brain, and sift through her thoughts. Amy is emotionally volatile yet calculating; it’s hard to tell whether her heart is made of ice or gold. She laments the person others have made of her: the “Amazing Amy” of the children’s books her parents based on her; the Cool Girl she became while dating Nick. She’s forever in fear that no one would really love her if she showed her true self, because she’s never revealed it. And yet we see Amy craft her identities carefully, repeatedly forging personalities within her mind and conducting those around her like a mass orchestra. Both Nick and Amy’s fear centers on one question: how unconditional can love really be? In their mad efforts to delay the answer to that question, Amy and Nick act simultaneously as hapless puppets and master manipulators, working towards ends that can’t be reconciled. And even though we are inside their heads, it’s impossible to know whether the selves they are presenting us are accurate, or whether they are telling yet another story to win us to their side.
You will love being manipulated by “Gone Girl.” Do yourself a favor and pick it up now.