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Friday 18 April 2014

Gone Girl: The thinking woman’s Fifty Shades?

Reese Witherspoon has bought the rights to Gone Girl

It is the book everybody is talking about. But can Gillian Flynn's tale of marital deviance live up to the hype? Definitely, says Matilda Battersby

Just how well can you ever know the person you love? This is the premise of the most overhyped book of the moment, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Having sold 500,000 copies since it was published in January, this psychological thriller has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the film rights have already been snapped up for a reported $1.5 million by Reese Witherspoon (who would make an excellent female protagonist).

It is a tale of marital destruction between two thirtysomething former writers who move to a small town on the Mississippi and systematically, and selfishly, forget why they ever liked, loved or interested one-another. Stuck in an over-privileged cage of convention they each poke blithely at the other’s insecurities and resentments - every romantic breakfast, affectionate gesture, attempt at terse conversation now loaded with unspoken anger at “the pointless tasks, the myriad sacrifices, the endless small surrenders”.

A familiar story, then, for many couples who end up divorcing. But what makes the story interesting is the extreme lengths to which the husband-wife manipulation extends. And how the author cleverly gets the characters to present themselves differently to us, the reader, playing different versions of themselves, with narration that veers from delusions to downright lies. “Every marriage involves gamesmanship, little power-plays and squabbles,” Flynn said in a recent interview. “I just amplified it – a lot.”

Nick and Amy Dunne are neither likeable nor admirable characters. You won’t see women getting dreamy-eyed over Nick in the way they might have over Christian Grey of 2012’s publishing phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey. Nick is a shady, untrustworthy failed journalist who lies about pretty much everything and spends afternoons reading back copies of the magazine he used to write for years after he was sacked. And Amy, although a perfect advocate for hell having no fury like a woman scorned, is a vain, coddled Trust Fund-baby whose high opinion of herself is maintained while exacting Machiavellian forms of revenge. Together they are a beautiful mess. Two good-looking, self-satisfied people desperately seeking attention and comfort from each other but both wilfully withholding affection and feeling they are the injured party.

The drama starts on the morning of the couple’s fifth anniversary when Nick is called home to discover that the front door of his house open. His stay-at-home wife is gone and there are signs of a struggle. Where can she be? The ensuing narrative is split into two parts: his present tense description of the search that unfolds, and her diary entries stretching back several years. The conclusions that you draw in the first two hundred pages are soon found (spoiler alert!) to have been entirely manufactured by one or both of our protagonists – which, while the latter half of the book appears to sift through the half-truths and shed light on the misnomers, leaves the reader with a distinct distrust of what they are reading. A device both gratifying and irritating.

One striking element is Amy’s description of the roles men and women play in relationships. She reveals she snared Nick by playing the “cool girl” – the kind of girl 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”. A girl who, she says, doesn’t exist. The “cool girl” pretence lasts for the first couple of years of their marriage and suddenly Nick, with his “my wife doesn’t understand me” complaints, finds himself with a person who not only doesn’t like certain kinds of sex, food, video games etc but also makes certain demands and expects her husband not to be a slob.

So is it worthy of the hype? I think it’s unlikely to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction on the basis of its prose style but you can see why the book has become a word-of-mouth sensation. I read it in two sittings- its page-turning prowess is quite equal to an Agatha Christie. It is a very intelligent, if extreme, exploration of how bad domestic bliss can become. Men should be wary of dismissing it as chick lit as it reveals some alarming truths. Above all it makes you happy for your own relationship choices - things are unlikely to ever get quite this bad, one hopes!

Expect this book to receive the Fifty Shades treatment with other psychological thrillers rushed out by publishers in copycat book jackets. If you haven’t read it yet, you will have soon.

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