The Short Version: Nick Dunne has the perfect wife. Amy is pretty, funny, sexy, smart, and just about everything he could ask for. But their marriage has taken a turn and when she disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, signs point to him having murdered her – except that he vehemently denies it and might actually be telling the truth. Of course, the truth is relative.
The Review: I approached this novel with trepidation, to say the least. Partially because of all the hype, partially because the slight backlash that I’ve noticed creeping around the internet sounds like the sort of reaction I might have to the book. But deep down, I so desperately wanted it to be as awesome as the masses seemed to make it out to be – so I set up hoops for myself. Had to read it in paperback, of course – a pulpy thriller? No hardcover for such a thing! But then it showed up on the ToB bracket – and the games will go down before it’s out in US paperback. So I ordered in from Amazon UK – and then it was delayed in the mail. But finally, I could wait no longer. The stars had aligned and it was time.
Also, I should say this now: there will be SPOILERS. I will try to steer clear as much as I can – but in order to really contemplate the novel fully, I’m not sure I can keep it totally clear. So. Fair warning, friends.
At first, I was a little… well, a little worried. The writing was sharp and I liked the different voices between Nick’s real-time story and Amy’s diary – the diverging versions of the same story, Nick’s increasingly harried quest to prove himself innocent… but the beginning of the book had the definite feeling of the author consciously withholding information. You knew, from the get-go, that we weren’t getting everything at once. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, Ms. Flynn toes a verrrrrry sketchy line here by creating the feeling that the reader has, actually, been denied information. For example, the burner cellphone that keeps getting mentioned and then ignored by Nick – it had a smugness to it. An authorly entitlement: I’m going to tease you with how much you don’t know. There were times that it almost felt like a passage and been written and then excised, whole, from the book – leaving these frustrating gaps. And frustration is never something you want to inspire during a mystery novel, because the reader can simply walk away. No matter how enticing the actual mystery, enough yanks on the collar will make me snap the leash and walk away. It’s happened before – and so I was nervous here.
But also, I was surprised – surprised at the verve with which this novel has been received. The mystery was intriguing – who DID kill Amy? – but I also didn’t quite care. It wasn’t Nick, I realized that pretty quickly, mostly because he was such an insufferable jackass. He was hiding something but I had the instinctive understanding that he did not kill his wife and so, okay, can we make something happen here? It was not until the first major reveal – the reveal that came almost a bit too late (around page 150) but that Bret Easton Ellis even approved of, on Twitter – that I started to see that this was allllll part of a much, much bigger plan. Andie came out of nowhere, even though retrospectively the signs were obvious, and the way that she was deployed in the story immediately hooked me. I was beating myself up a little for having missed it – and also starting to take back all of my irritation towards Flynn for the overly-authored beginning. So I doubled down and put my faith into wherever the novel would take me.
(just in case you weren’t warned earlier… it’s happening now. HUGE FREAKING SPOILERS, COMING UP. SPOILERS. SPOILERS. SPOILERS. BOOK-RUINING SPOILERS.)
My faith was rewarded at the start of section two. Or Part Two, whatever. Suddenly, the entire game changed and the novel – the entire novel so far – was thrown into question. I appreciated it when Nick started to figure out that she might still be alive… but when the actual Amy began to talk to us, directly, it (the book) practically picked me up and threw me across the room. In the long and (ig)noble history of unreliable narrators, this was a cut above the rest. We had been given no reason to believe that anything said to us so far was a lie, per se. Nick was deceitful and a prick, but everything so far had some truth to it – why would we think otherwise? To invalidate just about half your book in a single flick is a pretty ballsy move and it made the rest of the book that much better.
The realization that the villain here is Amy, that she is an out and out sociopath (bordering on psychopath)… EVERYTHING changed. And to watch her, in real time, come back to her husband… it was chilling. One of the easily-top-twenty scariest moments in literature I’ve ever encountered was Amy, at the foot of the stairs in her nightgown, telling Nick to play nice. That’s something straight out of a classic horror film – and why, suddenly, I realized that this book actually deserved the title of “thriller”. Other books classified as such are certainly thrilling but they are not thrillers. The Harry Hole series, as a prime example: very exciting, even scary, even psychologically scary – but they do not evoke that Gothic, primal, things-that-go-bump fear the way this novel did in that single moment.
One of the big analogies people have used for this book (because we all must equate new things to old things, in order to process them in this modern society… I do it too, but I’m just saying…) is that it’s like a modern Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and I didn’t get that until several twists in. I won’t explain why (one spoiler too many) but for those who know the play well, you should be able to suss it out. But then, as the couple recommitted to each other in this strange mutually-assured-destruction way, I realized that Albee’s play is a perfect predecessor to this one. I can’t think of another couple whose love took the form of hate – who, even as they battered at each other, were falling deeper in love. I can’t even explain it, really. Because it isn’t love-love. It’s more a parasitic/symbiotic thing – like a vampire in the process of turning a victim, where the victim must drink from the maker while the maker drinks from the victim. Nerdy analogy, but it’s the best I’ve got.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. As whiplash-violent a ride as it was and as cruelly calculated a thriller as I’ve read in a very long time, I cannot give it top marks. For one thing, the final twist was a twist too far – or at least the logic behind it was. I could (and would) have accepted any of the hundred other ways it could’ve been accomplished – but this one put way, way, way too much foresight into the mix to be plausible. The other thing is that, frankly, the writing and the help-you’re-almost-choking-me-tight authorial grip on the earliest portion of the novel are a detriment. I wanted to read Sharp Objects when it came out – and I’ll certainly give that and Dark Places a try – but there was something surprisingly ham-fisted about the way we were kept in the dark at the beginning of the book. Especially considering how well-deployed the various bombshells were throughout the rest of the novel. But I could also see this making quite the run at the Rooster – it’s genre fiction that anti-genre people will even enjoy.