Going, going, Gone Girl

by John Boland

Critic John Boland on why the thriller novel by Irish American writer Gillian Flynn has turned into the summer’s big read

What makes a bestseller? When Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl, was first published just over a year ago, it was critically acclaimed, not least by this reviewer, who described it in these pages as both a fiendishly clever thriller and a savage critique of a seemingly perfect marriage.

Yet for all the praise it received, its hardback sales weren’t extraordinary and it’s taken 12 months for it to become a publishing phenomenon, its paperback edition now ensconced at the top of bestseller lists, both here and in the UK, while in the US its huge success has led to a belated surge in sales for Flynn’s two previous (and somewhat inferior) novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places.

Then there’s the upcoming movie, to which Reese Witherspoon has bought the rights and in which she is tipped to star and which will undoubtedly make the author – a 42-year-old Missouri-born former showbiz journalist with Entertainment Weekly – even more famous than she’s become in the past couple of months.

So what is it about Gone Girl that has made it such a runaway success, with industry experts predicting that its sales (currently more than two million copies) may soon overtake those of EL James’s Fifty Shades erotic novels? The reasons are various, its eye-catchingly stark black and orange cover among them, but the principal one seems to be that it appeals to various types of reader.

Firstly, there’s the storyline, in which have-it-all wife Amy vanishes one morning from the Missouri house to which she and equally driven husband Nick have decamped after losing their Manhattan media careers to the recession.

There are signs of a struggle in the kitchen and Nick soon becomes the police’s chief suspect. But that’s only the start of a tale which is shaped and paced with such mastery and with so many ingenious twists that the book soon becomes quite unputdownable.

Then there’s the narrative device that Flynn employs. The book is told, in alternating chapters, by Amy and Nick, the latter recounting developments as they unfold, the former recalling their lives together through a diary she’d been keeping since they met five years earlier. Flynn’s masterstroke here is to make both of them such unreliable, indeed unsettling, narrators that you don’t know who to believe until, exactly at the halfway point, there’s a revelation that leads the dumbfounded reader into even darker territory.

On top of these elements, there’s Flynn’s sardonic, indeed quite merciless, take on sexual relationships, and while men fare poorly under her darkly comic gaze, she’s just as withering about how women, for their own ends, feed and manipulate their partners’ egos.

This has led some critics to accuse her of misogyny and on her website she has conceded that hers is “not a particularly flattering portrait of women” before going on to ask: “Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims and soul-searching fashionistas that populate so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains.”

And though happily married herself to a lawyer with whom she lives in Chicago, she has said that her goal in writing Gone Girl was “to make spouses look askance at each other”.

As for the ghoulish elements in her work, she dates that back to her film-teaching father who had a passion for horror movies and introduced them to her when she was a child. “I watched Psycho a million times,” she has recalled.

The book, then, is a cunning amalgam of whodunnit, horror story, social comment and even chick lit – the latter exemplified in Amy’s diary, which is full of gushing aspirations about the pursuit of love, fulfilment and happiness, though you may feel that her starry-eyed account of life with Nick is just too good to be true. But here again, Flynn is way ahead of the reader.

What you have, then, is a book for almost everyone, with pundits in the publishing industry falling over themselves to emphasise its crossover appeal. “Women who like crime novels will love it”, one editor has said, “and women who like chick lit will love it, too, because it’s full of emotion.”

And men, they say, are drawn in both by its brilliant plotting and by its grittiness, while both sexes are responding to its unflinching look at contemporary marriage. As one publishing director put it: “It asks that question: how well can you ever really know someone? What are the games played, the lies told, within relationships?”

Those are all good reasons for the book’s extraordinary success and the fact that Flynn’s prose is dazzlingly good provides a bonus for those who, in an age of mostly ill-written bestsellers, care about such matters. Millions plainly do, which is heartening.

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