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Dark places of the heart.

July 12, 2012

There are plenty of novels about marriages gone wrong, but I’m guessing there are few marriages as irredeemably messy as the one depicted in Gillian Flynn’s compelling—but ultimately far-fetched—third novel, Gone Girl, a taut blend of psychological suspense thriller and domestic drama.

This is the kind of book that alternately fascinates and frustrates: just as you think you’re starting to piece it all together, Flynn spins you round and shoves you in an entirely different direction. But while Flynn’s sleights of hand are both clever and riveting, she stretches them too far—after a while, Gone Girl can no longer sustain the credibility of its myriad twists and turns.

Nonetheless, it’s a riveting ride all the way. Flynn begins Gone Girl with a classic crime thriller set-up: on the day of his fifth wedding anniversary, former journalist Nick returns home to discover that his beautiful wife, Amy, has mysteriously disappeared. There are signs of a struggle in the living room, the iron’s been left on, and Amy’s anniversary gift to Nick lies unopened in its box on their bed. As for Amy, she’s nowhere to be found.

We quickly discover that all was not well between Nick and Amy—but where does the blame lie? Flynn gives us Nick’s perspective in the days after the disappearance, when Amy’s case quickly goes from local mystery to national media feeding frenzy; but she alternates Nick’s chapters with excerpts from Amy’s diary, which charts the slow decline of the couple’s relationship. Amy’s version of the truth, of course, tells an entirely different story.

While Nick vehemently denies foul play, it’s not long before the evidence begins stacking rapidly against him, and the media starts to have a field day. Adding to the mystery are the cryptic clues Amy’s left Nick as part of their wedding anniversary ‘treasure hunt’ tradition: clues that Nick seems intent on solving before the police do.

The first half of Gone Girl is a rubrics cube of puzzles and hints that never quite click into place: Flynn keeps you guessing at every turn, and even as you make assumptions that feel as though they’re leading towards certainty, there are some questions that just don’t seem to have answers.

But while Amy’s disappearance is at the centre of this rapidly spinning mystery top, Gone Girl is more the story of a marriage than a crime, and it’s the psychological aspect of the novel that makes it such a fascinating read. Nick and Amy perceive themselves and one another in very different ways: with her carefully judged, alternating first-person perspectives, Flynn gives away just enough to make us piece together an idea of the truth, and enough to know that we’re not getting the whole story from either character. Like many couples, Nick and Amy recount the same events in very different ways, and it soon becomes clear that there are realities they can’t admit to or face—some, it turns out, are much darker than others.

Of course, no relationship exists in a vacuum, and the situation Flynn’s two characters find themselves in only deepens the drama. Nick and Amy’s problems are exacerbated by the tensions of America’s post-GFC climate: both successful New York-based writers, Nick a journalist and Amy the creator of twee women’s magazine quizzes, they find themselves redundant within months of one another. Once they relocate to the Midwest to care for Nick’s ailing mother, leaving behind the New York lifestyle they can no longer afford, relations begin to fracture; after two years back in Nick’s ghostly hometown, with its failed businesses and foreclosed homes and huge shopping mall full of empty shops, Nick comes home to find Amy gone.

But it’s in the second half of Gone Girl that Flynn’s machinations become less effective. While the story picks up increasing momentum—I read the final 200 pages in a mad rush, desperate to discover how Flynn was going to resolve the intricacies of her plotting—its credibility begins to slide. It’s impossible to reveal how without giving too much away—for all its faults, Gone Girl leaves you itching to discuss its numerous twists and complexities, and unable to do so with anyone who hasn’t read beyond about page 10.

Unfortunately, Flynn seems to get carried away by her acts of plotting trickery: Gone Girl’s characters become progressively awful, and their circumstances increasingly ridiculous. While Flynn’s attention to psychological detail in the novel’s first half is astute and subtle, she soon abandons this in favour of unlikely and over-the-top plot twists, and the credibility of her story begins to buckle. The ending is both disappointing and (strangely) rather predictable, and casts a pall over the entire novel.

Still, for at least the first 200 pages, Gone Girl takes a dark and intriguing trip through the tunnels of emotional and psychological warfare that lie beneath the surface of a seemingly ideal partnership; Flynn’s tale suggests how readily we can become trapped by the very person we once loved. Nick and Amy, rather than Amy’s disappearance, are the real mystery here—and they’re never quite unravelled.

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