The Grownup–Gillian Flynn

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George R.R. Martin asked Gillian Flynn for a story and this is the result.  She begins “I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it.  I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.”

Hmm, I thought.  But why the scary skull/house graphic on the cover?

Gillian Flynn is a master at getting into our heads and making us question who are the good guys and who the bad guys.  Old houses, ghosts, evil children, immoral fathers create a cocktail.

This 62-page story, published alone, was originally part of an anthology edited by George R.R. Martin.  The week I read it, I saw an ad by James Patterson for a series of similar publications.  Is this the way we will move forward?  Short books that can be consumed in a single setting?  Particularly from big-name authors?

The thought brings me back to the closing of Flynn’s story.  “I got in bed and watched the door of the adjoining room.  Checked the lock.  Turned off the light.  Stared at the ceiling.  Stared at the adjoining door.  Pulled the dresser in front of the door.  Nothing to worry about at all.”

Nothing to worry about at all.  Maybe we can keep our attention longer than 62 pages.  The dresser in front of the door is rattling.

Finished 3/23/15

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Dark Places–Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn’s head must be a dark place.  Dark Places was her first novel and, having read it last, I was relieved that the female protagonist was not twisted or evil.  Her worst faults were laziness and a milk kleptomania, which was understandable given her horrid childhood.

Libby Day survived the massacre of her family in their Midwestern farmhouse late at night.  One sister was strangled in her bed, another was chopped down with an axe, and her mother was shot in the face and chopped.  Libby escaped through a window and lost a finger and a couple of toes to frostbite from hiding in the woods.  Her older brother, Ben, was charged with the murders and sent to prison, in part due to her coached “eyewitness” testimony.

The novel begins with Libby’s banker telling her that the funds donated by concerned citizens when she was a child have run dry and that she needs to find a way to make her own living.  Libby has not made much of herself and her guilt over having survived is obvious.  She has anger to spare, which includes plenty for herself.  Desperate to avoid the work world, Libby agrees to meet with the Kill Club (for cash) to talk about her family.  That visit leads her to talk to the people involved in the demise of her family, first for cash, then on her own quest for the truth as Libby slowly wakes from the haze she seems to have lived in since that night.

Gillian Flynn is dark, but she is also skilled at slowly drawing a reader in and feeding just enough of the story to keep the pages turning.  She intersperses Libby’s investigation with diary-like chapters from Libby’s mother and brother.  Her mother is a sympathetic character–single mother of four children left to run her parents’ farm alone and saddled with a huge debt accumulated by her good-for-nothing ex-husband–but she is also weak.  In a terrible series of chapters, Patty Day realizes one of her girls has peed the bed and the sheets reek of urine, yet she is overwhelmed by the events of the day and does not change them and the sheets remain urine-soaked the night of the murders.  Benign neglect that does not always seem so benign, especially when it comes to Ben.

Ben is a teenage boy in poverty and the head of a family of four women.  He rides his bike in the winter cold back and forth to school to work as the weekend janitor, where he tries to avoid being seen by the athletes.  He is a skinny, hungry, tired young man who is mocked by his no-good father, his classmates, one of his younger sisters (Michelle), and even his girlfriend.  He begins a friendship with a pretty fifth-grade girl who embodies all of the privilege he wishes he had, but even that friendship goes bad as she claims he molested her.  Ben is sympathetic, but also dark and dark enough that Flynn lets us believe may have been guilty right to the end.  As in her other novels, guilt and innocence are not clear-cut categories for Flynn.  Instead there are degrees of guilt and shades of innocence.  Although Libby is the protagonist, Ben was the most memorable character of the novel, perhaps because he remains emotionally static, trapped in the time of the massacre and the teenage drama that surrounded it.

As in most thrillers, the “whodunit” reveal was a bit of a disappointment.  Writers are so skilled at stoking our imaginations that having to choose one reality and bring it to the page means competing with what our imaginations have created, and that is a loser’s game.

Finished 5/5/15

Sharp Objects–Gillian Flynn

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I loved Gone Girl.  Who didn’t?  Since I finished Gone Girl I have had Gillian Flynn books on my wish list.  I started with her debut novel, Sharp Objects.  Who did she kill to get a great back cover quote from Stephen King?  He said that after he turned the lights out, the story stayed “there in my head, coiled and hissing, like a snake in a cave.”  Who does not want to read that?

I was hooked and the book was hyped.  Adding to the mystery created by Flynn were underlines created by a previous owner of my copy of Sharp Objects.  Lines about teeth and timeline were underlined.  The question became whether or not this reader was intelligent or one of those dumb readers who randomly underline things they think might be important, but that end up being random phrases that stuck with them for some reason.

Flynn works for Entertainment Weekly so clearly she is surrounded by the less than normal.  Her comfort with the unusual is clear in Sharp Objects.  Camille is a mediocre reporter for a mediocre Chicago paper.  Her editor asks her to return to her hometown to investigate the murders of two young girls and, we discover later, to make peace with her family.  There is no peace for Camille’s family, who lost Camille’s sister as a very young girl.  Camille’s mother is distant and her stepfather is almost a non-entity.  Her younger sister, however, is thirteen and pulsing with too-soon sexuality and cruelty.  Camille is repulsed and intrigued by her family, the murders, and her hometown, but soon finds herself drawn back into the rhythms of childhood.

I was sure I had figured it all out by the middle of the novel, but I was wrong.  I was not surprised, but I was wrong.  That, ultimately, is the problem with a suspense or mystery novel, isn’t it?  How to keep the reader guessing and not be disappointed when the solution is revealed.  The best mystery writers know how to do this.  Those shaping their craft try to give you a  good time along the way so you will forgive them when the solution is not what you had expected.

I am curious to read Flynn’s second novel to see if she continues her theme of the dark depths of the female psyche.  In the meantime, Camille’s inscribed body will likely stay with me, even if it is not the snake in a cave Stephen King described.

Finished 4/9/15

Gone Girl-Gillian Flynn

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Who knows us best in the world?  Our parents are guardians of most of our history, but they love us as a creator loves creation.  Our siblings share much of our history, but their feelings are complicated by rivalries and birth order issues.  It’s our spouses who see us most clearly.  Marriage makes the glass darkly become the glass all too clear.  Love makes us shine in our spouses’ eyes.  Love makes our faults reverberate through the years, their echoes growing with each utterance.  The first few years of marriage are glowing extensions of courtship.  Then comes the harsh reality of having committed yourself to a person who tried very hard to hide their faults during courtship and who now lets them hang out and emit on a frighteningly regular schedule.

Gillian Flynn plays with the ugly truths about marriage and creates a thriller that is terrifying in its razor’s edge proximity to real life.  Amy is a beautiful rich girl from the East Coast who has married a handsome working-class Midwesterner who drags her to Missouri to care for his ailing parents when they both lose their jobs and most of Amy’s trust fund.  Resentments abound and the spouses, who had reflected their best selves in their early years, now become everything they repressed and despised.

It’s their fifth wedding anniversary.  Nick narrates and tells us he despises his wife.  His narrations alternate with entries from Amy’s diary, until midway through the novel.

Flynn brilliantly crafts a protagonist that we like, and then despise, and then pity.  She manipulates us much like Nick and Amy manipulate one another.  She builds us up, then lets us crash and watches as we gasp for breath before jerking us up for another ride.

Gone Girl is a grim novel that makes us question the nature of marriage and relationships in “today’s day and age,” but  that ultimately offers us redemption  through the exceptional nature of the main characters.

I can’t wait to read Flynn’s two earlier novels and to see how Gone Girl is adapted for the screen.  Even knowing where the big hills are, I’m sure the roller coaster ride will be just as thrilling, which is a testament to the skill of its designer.

Finished 1/21/13