Thoughts on Gone Girl

You guys know how I can’t resist reading the uber-popular books just to see what all the fuss is about? (Twilight thoughts here and a 50 Shades discussion here. Plus check out my whole not quite book review category tag for my thoughts on even more books.) Well, I just finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl last week. I knew a few pages in that it was worth blogging about.

Gone Girl by Gillian FlynnThis is a very difficult book to discuss without giving away spoilers, but I HATE spoilers. I definitely won’t give away anything big, and I will do my best to keep details vague while still being useful, but if you know Gone Girl is one you want to read, you might want to bookmark this post for after you finish just in case. Let’s dig in, shall we?

What It Is

Well the obvious answer is that it’s a really, really popular novel that’s been made into a movie. The answer that interests me is that it’s also one of the best examples of upmarket fiction I’ve come across in quite a while. From literary fiction, it borrows the unreliable narrator (two of them!), intentionally unlikable characters (many of them!), and a somewhat unchronological story/unconventional frame style (alternating between Nick’s POV and Amy’s diary). But despite these things, it shares distinct traits with commercial fiction. The plot is fast-paced with high tension, the genre is predominantly mystery, and the prose, though high quality and intellectual, is stylistically easy to read. Put them together and what have you got? Bippity-boppity-upmarket.

A Matter of Taste

So right off the bat, I’ll tell you what I thought. I loved it! As I was reading it, I thought it might end up going on my favorites list. By the time I got to the ending I decided it didn’t quite swing that, but I did give it five solid stars on Goodreads. Let’s break it down a little more.

My Likes

The main thing that strikes me is that this novel is incredibly brave. I love brave books and I admire the brave authors who write them. I will absolutely read more work by Gillian Flynn in the future.

The thing about discussing Twilight or 50 Shades is that the (to my mind) more interesting topics are somewhat obscured by the outcry over the quality of their prose. Writers especially want the most popular books to be the most well-written books, and that often just doesn’t happen. But with Gone Girl, the prose is solid. It isn’t stellar in a pretty or breathtaking way; there’s really nothing flowery here (though I did look up a few new vocabulary words). It’s simply good – not boring, but not flashy – and acutely well-tuned to the “voices” of its protagonists. Writers can quit their whining about all the “crap” that gets published; this one is truly high quality.

What a trip! This book thrusts you into the heads of its extremely disturbed and disturbing main characters – and they struck me as painfully realistic. You do not like them, no, and you aren’t supposed to. It’s uncomfortable. They’re despicable. I sometimes felt a little sick reading them because, honestly, I think those world views are so authentically accurate to real people. But damn if they aren’t compelling. I couldn’t have put the book down if I tried.

Speaking of which, this books reads like lightning. I don’t see how you could be bored! It’s not all plot, true, but the characters and the details of their lives are so richly rendered that I can’t imagine being bored by it. Not to mention the mystery pulls you along at a great pace.

It kept me guessing, and I’m a notorious twist-guesser. (I don’t mean to, but I always accidentally realize what’s going to happen.) I did think of the twist as one of the options, but I wasn’t sure it was the real answer until it was fully revealed.

And finally, it kept me thinking even after I finished. Even the most disgusting characters had some really great points about certain things, and even the most outlandish plot twists brought up some legitimate food for thought.

Some Dislikes

There were very few things in this novel that didn’t work for me, but I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about the ending. It didn’t make me as mad as it did many readers, and I think I disliked it for a different reason. For me it wasn’t about justice, but because the believability factor went way down. For the first three quarters of the novel I was willing to suspend disbelief, but by the end that had slipped. And… yeah, that’s pretty much it for my own dislikes.

I’ve seen several reviewers comment on the prevalence of profanity, which, honestly, I can’t understand. Admittedly, I love profanity, but even if I didn’t I think I’d still see it as justified in this context. It isn’t author interference; it felt like the right “voice” for these narrators. But if that’s something you can’t make an exception for, this isn’t the book for you.

Another complaint I saw in reviews was the economic status and race of the protagonists. I just… what? People said things along the lines of “I can’t make myself care about the problems of rich white people.” Wow. First of all, I don’t really think we’re supposed to be “rooting for” these characters in that way anyway. Second of all, I have to say that I find that reaction just as off-putting as if someone said the opposite. But hey, everyone has a right to their opinion. Personally, race and wealth aren’t reasons for me to read or not read about any characters, pretty much ever.

And the final complaint I saw repeated was how unlikable the main characters are. I can’t argue with that, but it didn’t make the book unenjoyable for me. Some readers want to root for a character; others want to be challenged by them. I like both, so I was able to go with it on this one.

Sexism

Here’s the big debate I’ve been seeing: is this book misogynistic? Scores of people are saying it is, but I completely disagree. Is Nick misogynistic? No doubt. But I believe that he’s supposed to be. And Amy is supposed to be misandrous and misogynistic (so, basically, a misanthrope). Here’s the really important part: having misogynistic and/or sexist characters does not make the author misogynistic and/or sexist. In this case, I would argue the opposite. I read Gone Girl as a fantastically feminist work.

Let’s put it this way: If this were a book written by a man about a despicable male character, would interviewers be asking him, “Why do you hate men so much?” Would readers accuse him of looking down on men? I don’t think so. Male authors are afforded the benefit of the doubt. They’re given the license to write horribly twisted characters of their own gender and not be accused of believing that’s how all men are. In my opinion, it’s high time female authors are afforded that same license.

Amy Dunne doesn’t paint women in a good light. That’s inarguable. But I don’t believe that feminism is a PR campaign. Women are human, and humans come in all shades of good and evil. Demanding authors to only portray female characters as likable and wholesome does more damage than good. Those aren’t women; they’re blowup dolls. They’re cardboard cutouts there for the male characters to do interesting things in the vicinity of. Given my choice between reading about a Mary-Sue and an Amy Dunne, I’ll take Amy Dunne any day. [Note: For my thoughts on “strong female characters” check out this old post!]

This, by the way, is one reason I call Gone Girl a very brave book. I have so much respect for Gillian Flynn for unapologetically writing what she wants to write — and doing a damn good job of it.

Who Should Read It

Writers, to start. I think all writers should read this book, even if they don’t end up liking it. What a fantastic opportunity to study an accomplished author’s choices and take notes. What works for you and what doesn’t? And more importantly, why? Can you use that? Why do you think this novel in particular has been so successful? Can you use that?

As to non-writer readers, not everyone will want this one. I think it comes down to why do you read? If you read for entertainment and/or to make yourself think, Gone Girl is a yes. If you read for light pleasure and/or to uplift and reinforce morals, Gone Girl is a no. If you like tidy endings and clean messages, skip it. If you like books that push the limits and raise questions, it might be worth looking into. And of course, if you only enjoy reading characters you can root for, this one definitely isn’t for you. But if you like to take a dip into darkness, Gone Girl is the best book I’ve read in a while.

Have you read Gone Girl yet? What did you think? (No spoilers, please! If you want to discuss specifics, please do it in a way that won’t ruin others’ enjoyment. I.e. say “post-twist” instead of stating what the twist is, etc.) And if you haven’t read it yet, do you think you’ll add it to your list?

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  • Julia Munroe Martin

    I love this review. What’s interesting is that I wasn’t so crazy about the book, but not only can’t I argue with anything you’ve said, but I AGREE with almost everything! I think my suspension of disbelief lightened up around halfway and she lost me by the last quarter. As for the swearing, I don’t even remember it! Ha! (I guess we both love profanity) And I found Amy to be much more sexist than Nick. But, like you, I found the writing more than solid and I liked her style. And I think as a writer I definitely learned much from the book. Now for the big question, did you see the movie? I’d be so curious to hear what you thought of it (casting in particular)…I saw it with one person who had read the book, and two who hadn’t, and — well — let me know what you think if you see it. Great review and analysis, Annie!

    • Thanks so much, Julia! I haven’t seen the movie, actually, but I read an interesting article somewhere online about the differences and why the book worked better. To be honest, I’m not particularly interested. I’ve never been a big one for books made into movies — even (especially?) if I loved the book. Maybe I’ll see Gone Girl when it makes it to video/Netflix.

  • Nat

    I hated the book.Because I hated the characters,pretty much every single one of them.And the things you liked couldn’t really salvage that for me.
    It’s not a requirement for me though to like the people I read about to like the book.But reading this book was emotionally draining,like a person who is subjected to or exposed to abuse,but who keeps going back hoping it gets better.It didn’t.
    A lot of people didn’t care for the writing quality,which I will gladly overlook if the story grips me.This one I had to fight through just for a let down at the end.

    • I can totally understand that. They’re all very hate-able characters. I’m surprised to hear that some people didn’t like the writing, though. I can’t see how, to be honest. I thought it was fantastic prose! (And yes, I agree that the ending doesn’t stand up.)

      • Haydee

        That has just been what I’ve observed in discussions of the book.I honestly didn’t even notice the writing as either bad or good,but oddly enough it was the one thing that others who didn’t care for it got hung up on.The writing would have to be absolutely horrid for me to not continue reading a gripping and engaging story.I’d probably still keep reading though!

        • Interesting. I tend to notice prose quality (although poor prose doesn’t automatically “disqualify” a book for me), and I actually noticed how good her prose was. Everything is subjective, I suppose!

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    I can’t read your review, because my book club picked this book! But I will come back when we’re done (in April). I’m interested in reading it because the movie also highlight an alumna from my small university in Ohio (Ben Affleck’s twin in the movie). Should be interesting!

    • Oh, this will be a super fun one to read in book club! Do come back when you’re finished and let me know what you (and your friends) thought. 🙂

  • Carie Juettner

    This is a great post, Annie. Your passage regarding the sexism (or lack thereof) in the book is spot on. I read the book when it first came out and COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. Seriously. I love to read , but I’m not actually a fast reader. But I read Gone Girl in like three days and I even had company during those three days. My husband’s mom was visiting. We’d be sitting around watching TV and talking and, almost without me even realizing it, my hand would reach out and open the book and I’d start reading it right in the middle of our conversation like some sociopath. I thought it was great, until the ending. I read it for a book club and we had the best time discussing it, which is another good compliment to the book– so much to talk about. I gave it 4 stars on goodreads (because I’m stingy with my fives and the end really bugged me). BUT… I later went and changed it to three stars. Because even though I devoured the book, afterward it made me feel kind of dirty. I’m no prude, but the characters were SO unlikable, and that’s what ended up sticking with me long-term, not the great writing. I’ve always lamented that goodreads doesn’t have a two-rating system– one for how well it was written and another for how much I enjoyed it. This one would be a 4.5 and a 2. It was an amazing book, but in the end I didn’t actually LIKE it.

    • Thank you! I know *exactly* what you mean. I think Goodreads having two rating systems is a brilliant idea! I struggle with that too — books I like vs books I appreciate. I usually err toward answering “How well did the author do what they set out to do?” and mixing it with “Did I like it?” So I tend to give higher ratings. (I also tend to just not rate books I would give less than 3 stars.) But anyway, yes, yes, and yes. I understand exactly how you feel about Gone Girl. I felt “dirty” too, but frankly I’m impressed by that. Her ability to make me *feel* something actively uncomfortable and still want to keep reading… that’s good writing to me.

    • Agreed! I admired the writing and the bravery but I absolutely got to a point where I was sick of “listening” to the characters and started to get mad at the author; it started to feel like she in love with her own writing, but I think that was more a result of not liking the characters.

      • I can totally understand that! I got sick of “listening” to them sometimes too.

        • Melissa Crytzer Fry

          So, Annie… we have book club for Gone Girl tonight. I wanted to comment here because I agree with Jess. I actually got so tired of ‘hearing’ the characters’ voices that the book was NOT a fast read for me. I lost interest, and I think that’s because I disliked both of them so very much (and, in the end neither of them showed an ounce of character growth — I know; it’s not that kind of book). But I guess I need that to feel fulfilled in my reading!

          • I understand that! This is one of those books where I completely understand the polar opinions. I just happen to be in the other camp.

    • Haydee

      Oh this!This is so spot on!To be able to review 2 different aspects of a book-writing and likability-would be a great option.Because I hated this book,because of the characters,absolutely hated it….but the writing was good,so good actually that I kept hoping that that alone could save the book for me.It didn’t.

      • Can we petition Goodreads? Seriously, I am ALL for this two-rating system idea!

      • Carie Juettner

        I’m glad you agree, Haydee! Once in a while I really do want the dual rating system (like for Gone Girl and for Olive Kitteridge– another “loved the writing, hated the book”) but I also know that’s a rabbit hole I probably shouldn’t go down. If Goodreads divided it into 2 ratings, soon I’d be wanting 4 and before you knew it, I’d be rating everything from the cover design to the acknowledgements page. 🙂

  • Carie Juettner

    Yikes. Sorry for my book-length comment. You obviously inspired me with this post. =]

    • No way — don’t apologize! I love long, thoughtful comments. Always. <3 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • jclementwall

    I never do this, but this time, I saw the movie without reading the book. I HATED the movie. I so wished I hadn’t watched it first. After I did, I tweeted my dislike and asked if the book was better. I got a lot of responses that the book was good from people who, like me, didn’t like the movie.

    I think I’ll read the book even though I know the ending. One of my big problems with the movie was its lack of believability and how little I understood why characters did what they did. I hate when I’m supposed to buy into the plausibility of a plot point simply because it happened. I’m hoping the book at least helps with that, given an author has so many pages to work with, and can plop a reader right into the head of a character.

    • Hm, interesting. Well as I said, I had some believability issues with the ending even in the book, and I understood *exactly* why each character did the the things they did, so I’m not sure if you’ll like the book better or not. I’m definitely interested to hear, though!

  • Cynthia Robertson

    You break the pros, and cons (what few there are), down so precisely, Annie. This is a wonderful review, and in the few minutes it took me to read it, moved this book way up on my TBR list. I’ve been meaning to get to it, but now I feel I must!
    (I don’t mind swearing either, in life, or reading. As long as it’s called for, or if it’s funny. Maybe especially if it’s funny.)

    • Thanks, Cynthia! I hope I’m not leading you astray. 🙂 The profanity in Gone Girl definitely isn’t funny (far from it), but I thought it was well called-for.

  • This is the best review of Gone Girl I’ve ever read. I loved the book, too, for all the reasons you said. I also really disliked the ending. Now you can see the movie!

    • Wow, thanks Nina! I guess I’m going to have to, aren’t I? =)~

  • Emily Merritt Kirby

    I’m new to your blog, thanks to Anne Rice’s recommendation on her Facebook page, and I know I’ll be back! Having read Gone Girl before it was crazy popular and made into a movie, I love seeing this book get so much attention. The story is definitely different from anything I’ve read, and when you read a LOT, that’s a high compliment. I like some of the points you made about how the main characters are not the kind you fall in love with, and the ending was certainly unexpected. I still can’t say if I ‘like’ the ending or not, but I do like that I couldn’t predict it! Great review, and I look forward to reading more of your blog posts (old and new)!

    • Thank you so much, Emily. I’m seriously flattered by Anne Rice’s support, and I’m glad you found me! I agree about it being *different* — that really is special. Even books that seem different in concept, etc., at first often turn out to feel sort of familiar once I start them. No such thing for Gone Girl! Thanks for your comment. I look forward to seeing you around. 🙂

  • Hart St Martin

    Writers are told that they must make their protagonist a character that engages the reader. So when I picked this book up and began reading, I was absolutely amazed at how easy it was for me to dislike these characters and still feel totally engaged. Gillian Flynn is a courageous writer, and she taught me a valuable lesson. Engaging does not necessarily mean likable.

    • That’s a great way to put it: dislike but still engaged — yes, exactly. Well said!

  • Sonia Perez

    Great review! I have read it and enjoyed the twists and turns. But I didn’t fully appreciate it until I read Flynn’s other books. Now those books and all the reviews on those books make me want to go back to Gone Girl and discover Amazing Amy all over. I have my own story in mind about my own family full of women. Reading Flynn’s books and comparing them to those other popular books has helped me to realize that as I write out my characters, I can fully embrace the good, the bad and the really really UGLY of each character.

    • Sonia Perez

      Also, I do agree that her books made me THINK. That is the best part. You question yourself (morals, thoughts, vices, EVERYTHING).

      • Thank you, Sonia! I’ve already put Flynn’s other books on my radar. I know I will be returning to her; I think she’s phenomenally talented. And I did some similar self-evaluation. I thought I was pushing my characters into some pretty dark places in my current manuscript, but after reading Gone Girl I stepped back and thought, “Wow, maybe I could go even further.” It’s very inspiring to read such a brave work, isn’t it?

        • Sonia Perez

          You are welcome! It IS inspiring (and disturbing)! 😉

  • How great that you took the plunge and found something you really enjoyed! Bestsellers can be a mixed bag, but it’s always interesting to analyze them and see what makes them tick — and what makes them so popular.

    • So true! That’s part of what I love about bestsellers, actually. I have a natural tendency to play devil’s advocate, so I love diving into something mired in public attention. It’s really fun for me.

  • Peggy

    Interesting discussion! I think I’m going to have to read it after viewing your opinion, although I normally avoid books with unlikable main characters:) You’ve piqued my curiosity…

    • Thank you! Honestly, knowing your taste pretty well, I think you would hate it. Haha. Just being honest! But if you want to give it a try, I have a copy you can borrow. 🙂

      • Peggy

        You have a pretty good handle on my reading taste:) I just finished John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece, “A Confederacy of Dunces”, which compelled me to come back to this interesting discussion. I’m so glad R gave me this book & so glad I read it, but the main character, Ignatius J. Reilley is the most repulsive & contemptible character I’ve ever encountered as a main character. Toole’s writing, story-telling, & characters are simply masterpieces, but I found myself putting the book down frequently for breaks from that odious Ignatius:) Yet, I was always drawn back by the hiliarity of his crazy world & some strange sweetness & humanity about the big oaf! So, now I know I am actually capable of reading a book when I dislike the main character;) Shall I go for Gone Girl?

        • Hmm, I’m not sure. It’s certainly not funny, so it doesn’t have that to keep pulling you back, but it is weirdly compelling, which is a different type of “hook.” I really don’t know; you’re welcome to borrow it and give it a shot!

  • Diann_D

    Annie, what an excellent review! I read it right when it came out so I don’t remember a lot of the, I guess you’d say, finer points. But for sure I loved it–it’s one of those books I blazed through–and I think she’s an amazing writer. I also read Sharp Objects, which I loved as well and which is maybe darker and less page-turn-y (I’d heard some things about Dark Places that made me think it was too much for me). Anyway, I agree with you review, and I love how you’ve noted it as “brave.” I think as a reader I take a lot for granted that I myself would have a LOT of trouble writing. So that’s a really great thing to highlight. (Sidenote: Flynn was a TV critic for the Entertainment Weekly…I wonder if the pace helped with her own work?)

    There was a great essay out there on her writing process, but now I can’t find it. Anyway, here’s this one: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html

    • Thanks so much, Diann! Sharp Objects is on my list now, and then possibly Dark Places. (I just realized that all of her titles are 2 words.) Thanks for the link! That was a fun read. 🙂