Gillian Flynn's ice pick-sharp Gone Girl begins far too innocently by explaining how Nick and Amy Dunne celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary. Amy got up and started making crepes. Nick came into the kitchen, appreciating his wife's effort but wondering why Amy was humming the theme song from MASH. You know, that "suicide is painless" thing.
"Well, hello, handsome," Amy says to her husband.
"Bile and dread inched up my throat," Nick recalls, although Flynn's spectacularly sneaky novel does not explain that, not right away. Anyway, Nick leaves the house after breakfast. He heads to work. While he is gone, Amy disappears into thin air.
It almost requires a game board to show how Nick and Amy move through this book. They met at a party in Brooklyn and were momentarily smitten. (Move one step forward.) Eight months later, they connected for real. They got married. (Another step forward.) Then Nick lost his job. (One step back.) So they had to move back to Nick's hometown, Carthage, Mo., which Amy hated. (Another step back.) In Missouri they had fights, infidelity, money troubles and other noir-style problems that witnesses will remember now that Amy's gone. (Nick, go to jail.)
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Perhaps these sound like standard-issue crime story machinations. They're not. They're only the opening moves for the game Flynn has in mind, a two-sided contest in which Nick and Amy tell conflicting stories. Each addresses the reader: Nick in the present tense, and Amy by way of an italics-filled, giddily emotional diary about the marriage. Nick and Amy are extremely adept liars, and they lied to each other a lot. Now they will lie to you.
Nick's narrative begins the book, and it illustrates how many ways there are to dissemble. Like many a less-clever unreliable narrator, Nick likes lies of omission. The reader has to figure this out gradually, because Flynn is impressively cagey about which details she chooses to withhold.
But when the police come calling, Nick lies to them outright and even asks for the reader's sympathy. A guy who recently increased his wife's life insurance policy? Who has a hot temper? Who has been seeing a young and pretty girlfriend on the sly? Being honest is simply not an option.
The invisible Amy can talk only about her past behavior. She began the diary in 2005. It describes the marriage as an emotional roller coaster. Even when the fights began, Amy went to elaborate efforts to be cheerful and boost her husband's spirits, but she grew more and more worried as the marriage spiraled downward. Gee, she even reached the point of thinking she needed a gun.
An ordinary writer might think this a fully stocked pond. But Flynn, a former critic for Entertainment Weekly, is just warming up. She has many peculiar details to add. Here are some about Amy: She is the daughter of parents who wrote a string of Amazing Amy books with an idealized version of their daughter as the heroine. Amy remembers the stalkers she had as a child.
The books made Amy famous and her family rich. But their emphasis on perfectionism was more than a little creepy. The books even contained quizzes about what Amazing Amy would do under various circumstances, and Amy made up those quizzes herself.
As an adult, she weirdly gave herself multiple-choice options: Abducted Amy, stuck in Carthage. Carthage is right near Hannibal, the home of Mark Twain. (Move one step forward if you see how Tom Sawyer has been worked into Gone Girl. And not just because the Dunne house is on the Mississippi River.)
Amy also was either adorable or freaky enough to stage a treasure hunt for each wedding anniversary. One measure of Flynn's diabolical finesse is the Rorschach test she has made out of each of Amy's written clues. We have many chances to examine them before this book is over.
Then there are the potentially troubling things about Nick. He owns a bar with his twin sister. He used Amy's money to finance the place but resents her for that. He has taken a teaching job but fumes about being fired by a magazine in New York. Although his temper rages at times, he has a charming smile at others. Much to his disadvantage, Nick smiled winningly for the cameras while being questioned by the media about his lost wife.
And Nick has a secret life that did not involve Amy. On the morning she vanished, he was off doing something he is deeply ashamed of, and it is not revealed until late in the novel. Flynn's idea for Nick's biggest secret will be, for some readers, the most startling detail in a book full of terrific little touches.
Gone Girl is this author's third novel, after Sharp Objects and Dark Places. Dark Places, in particular, drew attention from mystery aficionados, but Gone Girl is Flynn's dazzling breakthrough. It is wily, mercurial, subtly layered and populated by characters so well imagined that they're hard to part with — even if, as in Amy's case, they already are departed.
And if you have any doubts about whether Flynn measures up to Patricia Highsmith's level of discreet malice, go back and look at the small details. Whatever you raced past on a first reading will look completely different the second time around.