Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is nothing if not a good read, and it’s for precisely this reason that I hesitate to, well, read too much into it. The novel is artfully paced, different enough to know you’re not wasting your time but a familiar enough archetype that you also know the narrative won’t deviate from the “surprise” tropes and ambiguous endings that books of this sort feel they owe their readers. That said, I can almost guarantee you’ll languish in bed for hours, flipping pages as if your life depends on it. Gone Girl purports to be a thriller, of course, and a psychological character study, but there’s also just enough incisive social commentary to elevate the novel to good good. The nature of the plot ensures the book’s primary readers will most likely be women, and if those women are anything like me, they’ll crumple a few pages (or crack their Kindle screens) in some choice eureka moments when Flynn just hits the proverbial nail on the head.
In a nutshell, Gone Girl follows a husband and wife, Nick and Amy, who lose their publishing jobs in New York (ah, relevance!) and relocate to Nick’s hometown of Carthage, Missouri where they open a bar using Amy’s money. (Amy’s parents wrote a beloved children’s-book series, for which their only daughter was the inspiration.) One day, Amy disappears, and Nick is the prime suspect. (To quote the inimitable Bill Maher here: “Whenever a woman is missing, arrest her husband. Who else would want her dead? She’s a housewife in Salt Lake City; she didn’t double-cross the Medellin cartel.”) Through Amy’s diary entries—the last vestiges of what appears to be an increasingly desperate, privileged, mildly spoiled but ultimately good woman—and Nick’s my-side-of-the-story chapters (also written in the first person), we piece together the clues along with the police who are growing ever more suspicious of Nick. And then things really get going.
I should probably inject a *spoiler alert* here. Take heed, beloved readers.
Gone Girl is predicated on a very express notion of female power: the power to overcome a longstanding mercy at the hands of men. Amy is, conventionally speaking, a very pretty woman, and pretty women, as it happens, get to enjoy and endure the very best and the very worst in men. Pretty women get free drinks and sandwiches; they get hit on and admired; in the professional world they’re considered more competent than they may in fact be (and in the academic world, less so). But pretty women also find themselves serving as uncomfortable outlets for the male id: They are the recipients of awkward, slimy comments about the well-being of various body parts (“How are your breasts today?”); of unsolicited photos of male appendages; of whispered threesome requests while the unwitting girlfriend is standing. Right. There; of vicious character assassinations should said women choose either to indulge in the male attention or rebuff it. In this case, Amy has sacrificed a considerable amount for her husband, and for her trouble has been slapped with the crudest, most laughable male stereotype of all: the affair with the hot, worshipful twenty-one-year old. How Amy responds to the betrayal (though it must be noted that Nick’s urge to escape into someone else’s arms is understandable) is unquestionably over the top; some might even call it sociopathic. And while Flynn would probably be among those people, she also gives Amy her due. Sure, Amy’s crazy, and when she’s wrong she’s terribly, egregiously wrong, but in the standard One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the-inmates-are-running-the-asylum sense, she can also be very, very right. The following passage is worth reproducing, simply because I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that I haven’t read such a gritty, modern, provocative (and uncomfortably accurate) anti-heroine monologue in a contemporary novel in quite a while, if ever:
“Nick loved me. A six-o kind of love: He looooooved me. But he didn’t love me, me. Nick loved a girl who doesn’t exist. I was pretending, the way I often did, pretending to have a personality. I can’t help it, it’s what I’ve always done: The way some women change fashion regularly, I change personalities. What persona feels good, what’s coveted, what’s au courant? I think most people do this, they just don’t admit it, or else they settle on one persona because they’re too lazy or stupid to pull off a switch.
That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. . . . There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: ‘I like strong women.’ If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because ‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’)
I waited patiently—years—for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, Yeah, he’s a Cool Guy. But it never happened. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl. Men believed she existed— she wasn’t just a dreamgirl one in a million. Every girl was supposed to be this girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you.”
I’m not claiming Gone Girl is some kind of latent feminist treatise, but the book does present a female protagonist who’s brutally honest, perspicacious, assertive, creative, entitled and, yes, ultimately kind of insane—but you can’t accuse her of not being interesting. Flynn, like her characters, has a real voice, which may take some getting used to (a few passages, especially early on, made me cringe), but it lodges itself into your brain and stays there. With all due respect to the Fifty Shades of Grey “trilogy,” it’s nice to see a smart, audacious novel reigning atop the bestseller lists.