Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl isn’t the kind of book I read very often, and this isn’t going to be one of the reviews which take me six hours to write. I thought I’d write a blogpost because each of the three times I mentioned the novel on Twitter, there was a flood of replies from people dying to discuss it, and Twitter isn’t the best place. So let’s do it like this: I say what I think, and you say what you think. It worked out well the last time I did an ‘unofficial’ review (Taking no Prisoners – My View of Fifty Shades of Grey).
I follow the book market closely, so of course I’m interested in titles which sell by the million (even if it depresses me about the prospects for my own novel). In the end I tend not to like them, but that may be because I get so bored of books that are overhyped before I’ve even picked them up. Sometimes you almost feel you’ve read the damn thing already. Often, hype raises impossible expectations that can only lead to disappointment.
Starting with my preconceptions: I was aware that Gone Girl is a Marmite book and that it contains a lot of audacious twists. I knew it was the story of a missing wife and a marriage gone wrong. Several friends had said they thought I’d hate it based on what they know of my taste in books. Although they were too polite to say it, I bet they were also thinking and because you’re so critical and incapable of just reading anything like a normal person. In general, that’s true, but when I’m reading something very different to my normal choices and especially if it’s nothing like anything I’d ever write, I do find it easier to read for entertainment. The clincher was when my friend and writing partner Kristin Celms bought me a copy saying she’d enjoyed it and thought I might too.
Kristin was right – I liked it more than I expected to. I’m going to have to be cryptic in case you haven’t read it and hope you get what I mean if you have. I have a horror of book blurbs (I almost always rewrite them for my reviews) which ruin the plot or give a completely false impression of the novel, but Gone Girl has a good blurb and a good teaser:
There are two sides to every story .
Or, in the words of a lawyer speaking of protagonists Nick and Amy Dunne:
You two are the most fucked-up people I’ve ever met, and I specialize in fucked-up people.
I can’t not comment on the writing. At first I thought the style was going to defeat me. It’s very irritating, especially in the first half – jokey and twee:
Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this. I am embarrassed at how happy I am , like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble above my head saying ‘I met a BOY!’
This is from one of Amy’s diary entries, and she’s not a teenage girl, but a woman of nearly 30. Elsewhere the tone changes: it is dark and gripping but frequently vulgar and unpleasant. An elderly woman is described twice as having a ‘vaginal’ smell and there’s a lot of the C word, which I found in bad taste. It’s almost 500 pages long and about a quarter could have been shaved off to great effect by being less wordy. Example: My wife was crazy. I was married to a crazy woman. You get the idea.
Reading that back, it sounds quite critical, so what did I like about it? It reminded me of the way I used to enjoy early John Grisham thrillers; I was pulled into the story and looked forward to getting back to it. I hadn’t come across this structure and set-up before so it felt fresh. The novel is very cleverly plotted and the notorious twist halfway is of a kind that’s made me rant and rage with some other books. But although it worked, after that, for me the stakes were lowered (and you will only understand if you’ve read it).
If you like your characters likeable, you won’t like this book. I was unhealthily drawn into just how depraved and awful both Nick and Amy are and the lengths they go to, but it’s a risky strategy when the reader doesn’t sympathise with either protagonist. The use of secondary characters was good: Amy’s parents, Nick’s twin sister Go (Margo would have done fine), the detectives, the lawyers and various others contributed a lot of interest to the story. I could really picture the couple’s preppy-journo New York life and Nick’s miserable, economically-depressed Midwestern hometown with its abandoned mall, where they move after losing their jobs.
The picture of marriage is a depressing one (I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone having relationship problems) and without getting too heavy about it, the book plays massively to stereotypes of the pathetic, spineless husband who just can’t help himself and who’ll do anything to keep his woman quiet and the conniving, manipulative bitch who pulls the strings.
The events of the second half were increasingly unbelievable (one character seemed to exist purely to serve the plot) and I found the ending – when it finally arrived – a real cop-out which relied on something which made no sense early in the story. I read that the author stalled at the 82% mark when writing it and it showed.
Well, I’m glad I read Gone Girl – it’s definitely got something. I know a lot of you have read it and I can’t wait to hear what you thought, whether you loved or hated it. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT YET and want to comment, you may prefer to scroll straight to the end of the comments to avoid seeing borderline spoilers. I want everyone to be able to have their say.
If you’re looking for a new read to really get under your skin, get very excited about Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach – one of my Top 10 Summer Reads, out on 4 July – and while you’re here, please check out yesterday’s Family Snapshots post and nominate your favourite fictional family novel to win signed story collections. You can even pick the Dunnes if you like!
I got completely stuck half way and am not sure if I’ll finish it. I found the language really irritating and crude and the twist too predictable. It’s mildly depressing to find that a plot driven novel with a simple twist is all that’s needed to sell millions of copies.
I feel that way about lots of highly successful books! Let me know if you do finish it.
Me too. Will get back to you if/when finished. Thanks for your post. It’s interesting that the book has sparked such a conflict of opinion. Huge congratulations on your Rattle Tales short story.
Thanks, that’s very kind. Have you read it?
No, but I look forward to it.
Well, since I was named in the post I feel I need to leave a comment! I think you appreciated the book for the reasons I bought it for you, Isabel. While it’s not going to go on my all-time favorites list, I feel that it is more than just a stereotypical thriller – I think there’s more in both the writing and the plot than that. Though the reader might not love the characters, they are vivid as heck and you are very close to them (though they may not tell you everything you’d like to know). And while there are definitely stereotypes involved, I think she goes beyond them. These aren’t cardboard characters. Though I agree that some more editing might have been in order, as a writer I found quite a bit to think about and even to admire here. What is real between the husband and wife? What is imagined, or twisted in the telling? I don’t think I could ever write a book like this, and part of me wishes I could. Regarding the crudity, it’s funny but I don’t even remember that now.
Firstly, thanks for the book! You’re right, there is evidence of a lot of skill in this book and like you I found the characters very compelling without the need to like them. I think overall it sounds like you rated it more than I did.
I really didn’t like it but I did finish it, and read it quite quickly – so that tells its own story?! It certainly was readable. But… the protagonists were awful and I know they were supposed to be, but I really like to get behind characters and enjoy their company. I also got increasingly dissatisfied with the plot and by the end I was really fed up with it. The language was crude in places and I didn’t really mind that, it just sometimes felt gratuitous and pointless. I found myself rolling my eyes quite a lot.
And now I feel bad for laying into somebody’s work. It’s not easy to write a novel and there’s an awful lot of work gone in to this one like any other, and I appreciate that but, well, it’s just not to my taste. Hope that’s OK.
Don’t feel bad, Louise. There’s a difference between laying into someone’s work and giving a reasoned intelligent opinion in which you acknowledge that your personal taste plays a part. No book’s going to please everyone and writers do have to be able to live with that. I doubt it’s that hard if you’ve sold over 2 million copies!
It’s also easier to lay into someone else’s work with a conscience if it’s been top of the bestseller lists for weeks and is advertised all over the tube. It’s not as if the author is going to have problems getting another book deal — even if it seems like a case of double standards to do so.
I read it on recommendation from Debi Alper as she said it would be good for me to see how the missing thing is handled. I liked it but thought it went on a bit and that the ending was slightly ludicrous. I think as an example of character creation and voice it was excellent but I won’t be reading it again – and I am a serial re-reader so I think that says a lot!
Interesting that you read it with a writing-related goal in mind. As Kristin said, there are aspects of it that writers can learn from – I did too, although I was looking at male POV. As you can tell, I’m really not that good at turning off my writerly instincts!
I enjoyed your review and smiled during part of it – you’re so honest! But I also smiled because I think I’m a similar reader to you, and get tired of the ‘hype’ of bestsellers (and yes, jealous). But your review helped me to decide to NOT read this book. Many of my friends have told me I wouldn’t like it, even though they know I’m a voracious reader. But I’m just not into authors who create totally unlikeable characters. I choose not to be around those kind of people in my life, so why would I want to read about them? And I don’t like vulgarity that is gratuitous. So there. Loved the review.
Thanks Pam, glad you enjoyed the review and I do try to be honest, although if I would never choose to write about a book if I felt it had nothing to recommend it. There’s no point in being negative when it’s all so subjective. I avoid nasty people in real life (I guess we all try, with varying rates of success) but in fiction I quite enjoy unpleasant characters and often find them interesting. They certainly call for a lot of skill on the writer’s part to avoid being so objectionable you can’t stand to spend time with them.
Great subject for a blog post! I liked it, sort of. As Kristin says, like them or loathe them, the characters were ‘vivid as heck’, and not just the protagonists. It was pacey, the setting was really strong and I loved the unreliability of the narrators. Having said that, I’m inclined to agree with a friend who said she enjoyed it, but ‘felt a bit dirty afterwards’.
Ha! I completely agree with your friend. I felt slightly less of myself for enjoying it – it has a voyeuristic quality that’s a bit uncomfortable. It worked for me as relaxing, non-taxing entertainment – and that’s what a lot of people want from fiction, clearly.
I loathed this book. I know it’s clever, compelling and full of surprises, but I found it cynical and soulless. I also hated the plot devices used which, to my mind, were cheap shots/ play into the most hateful stereotypes some people have of women. I don’t want to spoil it for others, but I’m talking about the bit where a very serious crime is faked towards end of the book and the ending itself. Two myths about women and how they behave that, by including in a book like this that’s sold millions, have just been perpetuated. Made me so angry. Contrived, tricksy and annoying as hell. Most of the people in my reading group (all women) really enjoyed it, so that’s me told!
Eleni, thank you for being so brave and honest. I know the author has had to deal with accusations of this being a mysogynistic book (though I haven’t read the debate). I purposely didn’t get too into this in my article as I just didn’t take the book that seriously, but you are absolutely right that writing ‘lightly’ about such issues risks minimising them and perpetuating those ideas. I was very unhappy with the ending in that respect and also in terms of the story.
Not sure it was Marmite for me. Unusually, I don’t recall details of the plot, didn’t form a detailed mental picture of either of the main characters, and didn’t have strong feelings at the end! But it kept me reading and was a very significant project for the author. Got to congratulate her for the success of the book.
I suppose it wasn’t actually Marmite for me either as I didn’t love or hate it. Doesn’t sound like the book made much of an impression on you at all.
Great post! I don’t really have a type of novel I like reading most, I just hate books where nothing happens and the pace is slower than a geriatric snail. I liked the pace of Gone Girl and I got stuck in quickly, reading it over a couple of days. I did really want to know what was happening and I liked the way the wife’s voice suddenly changed. Originally I also thought the tra la la diary was annoying, but I was satisfied when I realised it was a fake voice. I agree with a few things you’ve said. Towards the end it got less and less believable and the ending was so dissatisfying that I was left feeling a bit unfinished myself! I thought it must be that I have commercial tastes and naturally want a great rounded ending, but now I think it was more than that… One minute Nick is going to learn her ways and trick her with his cunning, and the next minute he’s given in. Also I agree with you about ‘Go’ – why? I could understand Nick/author wanting to shorten Marguerite-Jezebel, but Margo is fine…
Hi Emily, thanks for commenting. I had a discussion with Jane about the twee bits yesterday on Twitter and I agree with both of you that it made sense in retrospect (although, I didn’t personally think it sounded like a grown woman) but it got on my nerves at the time and there was a lot of it. I totally agree with your comments re the ending. When I turned the page and saw the Acknowledgments I may even have said out loud WHAT? IS THAT IT?!
As expected you’ve already had lots of interest to discuss Gone Girl – well done for opening up the dialogue. I feel a bit like an impostor contributing as I didn’t make it very far with this book. The style defeated me. I usually commit to a book once I’ve decided to read it, but my pile of To Be Reads (many of which are thanks to your reviews) were just too enticing. I was glad I’d borrowed a copy from the library, and when I took it back I borrowed ‘The Sea, The Sea’ which I finished in about 4 days. Possibly another Marmite choice!
I don’t think not persevering with the book makes you an impostor at all (and you’re not the only one). I’ve jacked in several books recently – always at around the 80 page mark, which is pretty generous for something you’re not really enjoying – and the one thing above all else that would make me give up is writing I can’t stand. For me there’s no contest between Gone Girl and The Sea, The Sea, but I wouldn’t normally compare them because they’re such different kinds of novel. Pleased to hear you get some TBR ideas on the Literary Sofa – that’s the idea!
As I’m one of the (many) people who nudged you to read it, perhaps I should add my two penn’orth as well!
I’m completely with Emily on this one; I loved the pace, enjoyed the first half enormously (and didn’t see the twist coming), and the momentum carried me through the slightly less satisfying second half; and I too thought the end was weak, though truth be told I wasn’t sure I could have come up with anything more satisfactory. But the fact that I cared enough to even think about it says something – with most books I’d just shrug my shoulders and move on.
It may be that I had an advantage in not being aware of the hype when I read it – someone who’s view I like mentioned it on Twitter months ago and I read it then, somewhere between Monique Roffey’s Archipelago and our own Susan Elliot Wright’s The Things We Never Said. Three very different books but all three have stayed with me (and I would very much recommend both of the others!).
I’m afraid I long ago decided I’d had enough of reading books that are hard work. They don’t make me a better writer, and they certainly don’t do what any good book should do, which is take me off to another place where I can lose myself for a while. I just want a cracking good read – and as that will inevitably teach me something as a writer, about POV, or structure, or just plain storytelling, then I’m very happy. Commercial success is no guarantee of that (Harry Potter? I’m sorry – unreadable), but neither does it have to be a barrier. This book did it for me on both counts, and that’s all I’m looking for.
Thanks for encouraging me to read it. My taste is generally geared more towards literary fiction but I like to keep an open mind and as a writer I’m always interested to see what sells. As I said in the article, I definitely enjoyed Gone Girl more than I was expecting to. It ticks a lot of your reading boxes for a lot of people. Your comment about books that are hard work made me laugh. I can’t be bothered with them either any more and don’t feel they ‘improve’ me at all. I don’t mind reading attentively and doing some work (in fact I’d rather that than have everything spelled out) but when I picked up Will Self’s Booker shortlisted Umbrella in Waterstone’s and couldn’t get through the first page without needing to look up several words in a dictionary, I thought NO THANKS.
Your thought-provoking review and all the fascinating comments make me wonder whether I should buy (maybe from a charity shop or borrow) this novel not necessarily to read it (seems like everyone feels short-changed by the plot’s ending) but to learn what techniques the author has used. Seems like the novel is one of those that gets momentum because it has reached a critical mass of people you know having read it.
Incidentally, is the crudity and liberal use of the c word (how much is it used?) enough to put you off a novel in itself?
You’re not risking much if you buy it on Amazon. I think it’s only £3 or thereabouts. I agree about word of mouth getting to a certain level – that seems to be when a book becomes a phenomenon, when everyone is talking about it.
I’m not a fan of crudeness (I can’t use the word ‘crudity’ – it makes me think of raw vegetables!) in general as I prefer writing that’s more subtle and elegant. I know you read my recent review of James Salter’s novel, and as I said there, he’s quite explicit but stops short of being gratuitous because of the quality of his prose (although there is too much sex in that book). But the crudeness in Gone Girl clearly wasn’t enough to put me off reading or writing about it, so it wasn’t that big a deal. As for the C word, I strongly dislike it and I have a feeling many female readers would say the same.
If you are anywhere near Banbury I know for a fact that the Oxfam bookshop there has a copy. (Possibly sold by now though!)
Thanks for the recommendation. I’m not too far from Banbury (it’s about 3 stops up the railway line from me) but I go the opposite direction into London most days.
I’ve donated quite a few books to Oxfam in Thame and, not wanting to add to the author’s fortune, I went there about a year ago to look for a copy of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ — to satisfy the same curiosity as for ‘Gone Girl’. Maybe it was fortunate that there wasn’t a copy to be seen anywhere — perhaps everyone kept hold of their copies or maybe they flew out of the door.
I wonder if Gone Girl is in the Asda 3 paperbacks for £10 offer? I dread to think what the authors make out of those but I guess if they sell shedloads then it all stacks up.
I read this book for the same reason that I read Fifty Shades: because I wanted to know whether the book stood up to its hype and to the popularity suggested by its sales figures. Like you, Isabel, reading it prompted me to write a blog post about it, although I was nervous about sticking my head over the parapet and commenting on such a massive publishing phenomenon. It did affect my commitment that I found both Amy and Nick unpleasant, and I started off reading the book as a reader and finished it as a writer. The novel – as many of us have commented – raises the question of whether we need to like or empathise with characters. Personally, I need to care about at least one of them and I finished the book (after abandoning it once for several months and then re-starting it from the beginning) simply because I wanted to know how it ended. As a portrayal of a marriage which has gone badly wrong, or which perhaps was never right from the start, I think it succeeds. I felt that the novel painted a disconcerting picture of two people who’ve become alienated from each other, from themselves and even the world around them. I did find this depressing but am not sure that it’s as far from reality as people have said.
Regarding the writing, I am uncomfortable commenting too much on this as I am a writer myself and know how hard it is to write a good book! I genuinely admire Gillian’s skills, and think that she has them in abundance. I thought that she took big risks with this novel, because of the nature of the characters, the reveals-along-the way, and the ending. What I will say is that at times I loved the writing, and I genuinely thought ‘Wow!’. But I found some of the excessive repetition annoying. I’ve read two of her other books and think she has a distinctive voice, much of which is refreshing, in my opinion.
If you want to read my blog post and ‘review’ of Gone Girl, it’s here: http://whosestoryisit.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/my-view-on-gone-girl-by-gillian-flynn/ I’m not trying to promote my own blog; simply, that there’s not much point me re-typing here what I’ve already written elsewhere.
I was fascinated to listen to Gillian Flynn talking to Patrick Brown from Goodreads about Gone Girl, especially regarding her own take on the characters and ending. Their chat is here: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/video_chat/65?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=editorial&utm_campaign=video_chat
Thanks for your comment and for sharing your post which I found very interesting.
Regarding the writers commenting on other writers’ work issue, I think it very much depends how it’s done. This blog wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t prepared to do it and I’m really happy so many people are willing to join the discussion. I know many published authors love their work being discussed by thoughtful intelligent readers. Anyway, as I’ve said before, I respect anyone who’s managed to get published and if I think a book’s terrible I say precisely nothing!
Ah, Gone Girl. There is so much I could say but I think it was probably best said, and left, at the book group I belong to! What I will add to the conversation here is that I think there gets to be a point in time when it’s too late (for me, if no one else!) to read a much-hyped and hugely successful book, such as Gone Girl. It gets past the point of saturation in press and blogs etc and haunts you from your amazon recommendations and the shelves of any and all bookshops you visit. So, I think I read this book too late. After it became a phenomenon. Had I read it earlier, I might have enjoyed it more. Because the whole time I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking, “What is all the fuss about?” What didn’t help here was that I’m afraid I’m the annoying kind of person who usually works out what the twist is way in advance and that was the case here.
I enjoyed the writing, and could appreciate what Flynn was trying to do. I don’t have to like, sympathise or even empathise with a character, but I did have some fairly serious problems with just how far I was expected to suspend my disbelief when it came to the extent to which the main character got away with their actions. So it makes total sense to read that the author got to the 82% mark when writing and stalled. The second half of the book was much weaker than the first and the ending was a real let down.
Still, I suppose it is better to evoke a strong reaction in your readers, whatever end of the spectrum they fall, rather than a lukewarm one and it hasn’t put me off reading another of Flynn’s books. I think she’s an interesting enough writer to read more of her work in future. Even if I didn’t rush out to buy her back catalogue when I finished Gone Girl and could return it to the library.
Great comment, thanks Kath. Very interesting point about books being unreadably hyped! (Or even legitimately praised, for that matter). For that very reason I read Wild Swans at least 10 years after the rest of the world, and I never did read White Teeth. Don’t get me started on One Day….
Go on…get started on ‘One Day’. It must be long enough now for everyone who’s ever wanted to read it to have had the opportunity so no need to worry about spoilers. But, then again, I (briefly) met David Nicholls and he’s a thoroughly nice chap.
I didn’t hate One Day (on balance I felt about the same as I do about Gone Girl – it did have merits) I just completely couldn’t understand the hype. Very clever the way it was marketed to men as well as women with that brilliant cover – bet that played a big part. David Nicholls is a friend of a friend and I know he’s a great bloke. I’ve also enjoyed other stuff he’s written.
How many literary friends of friends do you have Isabel? 🙂
I liked One Day. I thought it was too long, but the basic premise was good and I liked the characters very much, even the ridiculous Dexter. But it’s “chick lit” isn’t it? Not marketed as “chick lit” though, and it got all sorts of rave reviews from a lot of male reviewers who I suspect wouldn’t have read the novel if it had had a female author and a pink-ish cover. What do you think? Probably opening a can of worms…
Fascinating isn’t it. One Day sold hugely but (unlike last year’s huge seller) hasn’t resulted in a large number of similar kinds of book. Apart from the book’s conceit (and rule-breaking plot twist), there are a few interesting points about the book: its dual narrative structure (not terribly unusual but writing advice often warns against it) and the very visual, almost screenplay-like quality (lots of dialogue, quite a bit of visual description — not surprising as David Nicholls is/was a screenwriter too) and it’s humorous.
It’s also a novel about relationships written by a man that isn’t blokey lad-lit and Nicholls writes in parts from a female POV as well as male. I wonder if that is part of its success. When they talk about the book, people say they liked the main characters, even though they do verge outwardly on stereotypes. I wonder if the fact that David Nicholls decided to use the voices of both characters helped with this.
Also, not many male writers attempt a female POV but, even if it’s not done entirely successfully, wouldn’t women readers be interested how a male writers’ imagines what it’s like to be female? That’s also a huge can of worms but I do think that it relates to the success of that book — and maybe the publishers picked up on that with the cover?
Answer – quite a few, but I’m guessing you knew that!
I’ll let you and Mike bash this one out.
Came across this blog post via Twitter, which cites One Day as one of the main pieces of evidence for its argument: http://www.danutakean.com/blog/why-we-need-the-womens-prize-for-fiction/
I have just finished the book, and have nobody to sound things off with; besides my fiancee who doesn’t particularly care!
I really enjoyed the book, and started off naive enough to really dislike Nick based on the first part. I could not get passed how much of an idiot (lets say) he was. However, there was no way I was expecting the change in plot, pace and the darker mood from part two; and I actually gasped when the twist became apparent. I am probably not a seasoned enough reader to correctly decontruct books, and I can see where the ending would seem weaker and half-assed. But, for me, it added to the frustration of the situation and the feeling of helplessness which came with it. If it was a film, I would have been shouting at my television screen!
Like I’ve said, I did enjoy the book and was totally swept up with the story as it happened-even making guesses on who I think could have harmed Amy. But, I was not reading the book with a great deal of critical skill!
I enjoyed reading your review, and am now open to suggestions for the next book to read!
You don’t need to have a critical eye, or to deconstruct books, to have an opinion. Thanks for sharing yours. A lot of the comments here are by blog readers who also write, and we are the worst for not being able to turn off the critique button!
Hope you’ve seen my Top 10 Summer Reads!