I was undecided about this book. I’m not generally a mystery/thriller fan, though I have read and enjoyed several of them in the past, and this one was so popular, and so well-received, that I figured it was a good risk. I have not seen the movie, and I did not know anything about the book’s plot before I started, so I was in the perfect position to enjoy it as much as it could be enjoyed.
But I wasn’t enjoying it. The writing was quite good, and the plot was interesting; but – just like the last two books I’ve written reviews for, sadly – I did not like the characters. So I asked friends: should I continue reading this book? Is it worth it? Do the characters get better? I got a fair number of the responses you would expect from a question like that: a few people said absolutely yes, a few absolutely no; a few said “Why not?” and a few said “If you want to.” A former librarian friend said, “When in doubt, read your age: read as many pages as you have years, and then decide.”
And one friend said, “Yes. You won’t like the characters any more than you do now, but the book is worth it.” She said the characters are intentionally unlikable. She said that she believed the book will become know as a modern classic, and as an expert in literature, Gone Girl is a book I should read.
Well. She was right about the unlikable characters. (Not to be snobbish, but: based on what I have learned about fancy-pants literature as an Advanced Placement teacher, Gone Girl, like most popular fiction, will not in fact ever be considered a classic, as it isn’t complicated enough. The AP program describes their acceptable literature as those works which reward re-reading, meaning that reading the work again gives you new insights, new ideas, that you could not have grasped the first time through. And Gone Girl doesn’t have those hidden depths. Everything’s up front. Which I generally prefer, anyway, because my friend was also wrong to call me a literary expert. I’m not. I enjoyed the flattery, though.) She was also right that the book was worth putting up with the people in it, and also that the characters are intended to be unlikable.
So the basic story is about a married couple, Amy and Nick Dunne; and in the first chapter of the book, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing. (She’s the Gone Girl.) The question is, what happened to her? At first, you get an impression of both of these people, Amy and Nick, and one of them doesn’t come off too well. (I won’t say which one so as not to spoil it.)
But then something happens. That impression changes. You learn a few more things, and suddenly, the other one doesn’t seem too good a person, where the person you didn’t like turns out to be not that bad. That’s about where I asked about continuing, because my reaction was, The hell with both of these people.
Here’s the thing, though. That shift in allegiance for the reader: that’s Gillian Flynn’s intention. That’s the point.
The book isn’t really a mystery. There are mysterious elements, but between a third and halfway through the book, Part One ends, and when Part Two begins, the mystery is revealed. And at that point, the person you’ve been liking more turns out to be MUCH worse than the person you’ve been disliking – though that person, the not-as-bad one, is still pretty obnoxious. What the book’s really about is two things: one is the way that married couples can really destroy each other, and themselves, over the course of a marriage; and the other is the incredible way we can manipulate public opinion. Because this turns into a criminal case, related to Amy’s disappearance, and the apparent guilt is essentially worked out in the court of public opinion. It’s all about who can manipulate the public best; that is the person who will – win, I suppose, though really, you don’t want either side to win, because the entire fight is just despicable. Back to that thing I said about married couples destroying each other. It’s all ugly, it’s all bad, and nobody wins. The same for lying and manipulating appearances in order to seem more righteous: it’s all ugly. It’s all bad.
You do end up rooting for some of the characters, mostly because you want the badness to end; there are some moments of satisfying karmic justice for the ugliness. Mostly, though, my friend was right: even though I never liked the main characters, the book was worth reading. We’re not supposed to really like them or sympathize with them: Flynn set this up to sway our allegiance back and forth, to show us, I think, that we determine our opinions too quickly on the smallest, most subjective piece of evidence; and because they are so shallow, our opinions can change completely when new information comes to light. It reminds me very much of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, a play I’ve taught dozens of times, because that play shows the Roman public for the fickle mush-heads (Props to Diamond Joe Quimby for the phrase, because the Simpsons have also done this topic) they are: first they love Caesar, then they love Brutus, then they love Mark Antony. And I have always believed that Shakespeare isn’t really talking about the Romans: he’s talking about his own audience, the English theater crowd, the ones whose favor could be won and lost in an instant. I think Gillian Flynn is doing the same thing: she’s using this book, with its masterful manipulations, to show us how wrong we generally are when we choose sides based on what we see on TV, and what we hear from the grapevine, and especially what we all “know” to be true – like how the husband always did it; or once a liar, always a liar; or that pretty people are more trustworthy.
I don’t want to think those things are true of me, too. But I’ve spent almost a thousand words now, talking about how quickly my allegiance to these characters changed: because I made snap judgments based on poor information, and never once questioned whether I should believe what I was being told. Not even when it didn’t make sense, when I had conflicting information about the same character; I never questioned whether something was credible. It was simply that the more recent piece of information had more influence on me; I tended to believe the new information was true, and therefore I should take it more to heart.
So what have we learned? I, too, like most other people, am a fickle mush-head, and I should not credit my knee-jerk opinions about public figures or controversial issues. I should think more. Gillian Flynn is a talented writer who set out to manipulate her audience into liking a character, and then hating that character, and then going back to liking the character, before drifting somewhere into a general distaste for everyone involved — including, for me, the author, who messed with me so much. We’ve learned that this is a well-done book, and people who are interested should read it. And I’m not going to read it a second time. I do not think it will reward re-reading. And I really don’t like these people.