"Nobody knows anybody. Not that well."
These words, spoken by Gabriel Byrne in the Coen brothers' twisty film noir Miller's Crossing, could be the epigraph for Gillian Flynn's brilliant third novel, an equally twisty -- and twisted -- literary thriller that has everybody talking... up to a point (one wouldn't want to give away any of the book's myriad surprises).
Flynn, a former U.S. pop-culture magazine writer, has penned a dark, funny, scary book about a relationship gone wrong that is a study in emotional manipulation.
On its face, Gone Girl is a murder mystery: Nick Dunne arrives home on the eve of his fifth wedding anniversary to find signs of a struggle, but no sign of his wife, Amy. But Flynn, telling the story via Nick in real time and via Amy's diary entries, makes it much more than that -- it's an insightful and often terrifying look at the way we deceive our partners and ourselves in our relationships.
It's a well-worn cliché in a reviewer's arsenal to say that a novel kept you turning pages far into the night, but there's no more accurate way to describe the spell Gone Girl casts; it's almost impossible to put down. Flynn masterfully ratchets up the suspense, and the back-and-forth narrative is a natural momentum builder -- you can't wait to see the husband's words refuted by the wife's, or vice versa.
It's also impossible to really get into detail about the plot without giving away too much, but suffice it to say that Flynn simultaneously presents an ever-escalating murder investigation (with a noose that is tightening around Nick's neck) and the gradual disintegration of a "perfect" marriage.
Nick, a handsome, charming writer at an entertainment magazine, meets Amy, an aggressively bright, beautiful blond who's heir to her parents' fortune (they wrote a series of children's books called Amazing Amy, a reputation she feels compelled to live up to) at a party, and they make an instant, giddy connection.
What tarnishes a once-golden couple? In Nick and Amy's case, it's the loss of their jobs (something Flynn, who was laid off by Entertainment Weekly, knows all about), stress with both sets of in-laws, and, most of all, a move from their cosmopolitan life in New York City to Nick's hometown in Missouri to take care of his ailing mother.
By the time of their fifth anniversary, the relationship has frayed to the point of snapping, so it's no wonder Nick is a prime suspect in Amy's disappearance.
"At this point in our marriage, I was so used to being angry with her, it felt almost enjoyable, like gnawing on a cuticle. You know you should stop, that it doesn't really feel as good as you think, but you can't quit grinding away," Nick says.
The plotting is perfect but what really makes Gone Girl work is the writing and the characters. Flynn is sharp, observant and witty: Nick and Amy seem like people you know, hyper-self-aware, steeped in pop culture and disdainful of cliché.
Amy says of Nick's good looks, "I bet dudes hate him: He looks like the rich-boy villain in an '80s teen movie... he has a great smile, a cat's smile. He should cough out yellow Tweety Bird feathers, the way he smiles at me."
After their move to Missouri, Amy, longing for New York, makes withering observations about Midwesterners, who "love two litres of soda, always two litres, and you pour them into big red plastic Solo cups, always..." as she hosts a party, "complimenting women on ambrosia salads and crab dips and pickles wrapped in cream cheese wrapped in salami."
Gone Girl is a perfect beach read, but it is guaranteed to linger with you long after your tan has faded.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.