The Short Version: Camille Preaker hasn’t gone back to her small hometown in Missouri since she got out of it – but after two young girls end up murdered, she finds herself there on assignment from her third-rate Chicago newspaper. Her mother, stepfather, and half-sister are less than pleased to see her and she’s not entirely sure how pleased she is to see them either – but as the weeks drag on and she runs into more dead ends, she begins to wonder just how poisonous small-town life might be…
The Review: There’s something almost too slight to this book, when you finish it. As though something had been cut away from it while you were reading and you didn’t notice but suddenly, as you flip over the last page, it feels lighter than it was. The substance within, drained away.
This was Gillian Flynn’s first novel – long before Gone Girl – and a reader who has read both can see the cunning mind already at work here. There are some reveals – or, not exactly reveals so much as widening apertures – within this book that feel like test-runs at those larger, smashing moments that force you to reevaluate what’s come before. From moment one, there’s something not quite ordinary about Camille, but she never tips into the realm of untrustworthy. She might be a drunk and destructive but you never… Well, actually, she never quite manages to become her own person to then become untrustworthy. She is held back somehow, she’s shrouded away from the reader even as we receive the story from her first-person point of view. It’s a curious sensation and one that, I think, lends itself to that sensation of the novel not quite feeling as full as you thought.
More interesting, though, is the examination not only of small-town politics but of small-town girls. Yes, girls – not just teens, although teen boys certainly get their share. But watching Amma (Camille’s half-sister) and her posse of mean girls cut a swath through the town is perhaps the most vivid part of the book. A house party some two-thirds of the way in, one where they drag Camille along and many drugs are ingested, feels almost like what might’ve happened had Bret Easton Ellis been corn-fed. It’s potent stuff and Flynn’s skill with psychologically disturbing undercurrents can already be seen in these early days of her career.
But she doesn’t, here, have quite the same adroitness with the case at hand. It’s startling how little is achieved and how actually action-less a large chunk of the book happens to be. It’s hot and sticky and strangely sedimentary for a while – like midwestern sun in summer. The conclusion, predictable as it may’ve been, seems to throttle up out of nowhere and it really makes the reader wonder about the incompetence of the people in the town not to’ve… not to’ve been more engaged? It’s hard to say, really – but something seems implausible. Oh, yes, a blind eye is turned toward much evil in small town America but the connections aren’t there to back up that eye-turning. There’s flash, while you read, but it fades pretty fast.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Some interesting psychological feints show Flynn’s true talents – but on the whole, the novel is fitful. It never really digs in, never really manages to come alive, and instead feels somewhat more like tentative steps out into the world. Knowing what Flynn is capable of, but also that this was her first novel, I can’t say I’m surprised – but I am admittedly a little disappointed. It never added up to the sum of its parts – or, perhaps, its parts never quite managed to make a whole.