Summer Reading: Gone Girl

The 4th of July has come and gone. That patriotic day seemed to chastise me for my lack of history books or traditional American novels on my bedside table. But, as everyone I had small talk with over the few days was sure to mention, it is really HOT outside.

In my apartment, the room with the best cold potential is the bedroom, with its surprisingly quiet and oh-so-efficient window unit. So my husband and I locked ourselves inside with the internet and books. And when I know I’m going to read something nearly all day, history is just not my pick.

Of course, my beside table wasn’t exactly set up for summer reading either. I’ve got a stack of three books already read, some unfinished manuscripts that will require too much thinking, and a non-fiction how-to manual. Not exactly a lose yourself in between pages kind of material.

So I started browsing Goodreads and Amazon for recommendations. It seemed like every category I tried, Recommended just for me!, Fiction, Mysteries, Thrillers all had the same book at the top of the list. What can I say, it was meant to be.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl, published at the beginning of June. I was skeptical. I’ve never read anything by Gillian Flynn before, and I was not in the mood for some slasher story where the victims are predictable in their mistakes and everyone dies. Amazon’s review began,

Marriage can be a real killer.
One of the most critically acclaimed suspense writers of our time, New York Times bestseller Gillian Flynn takes that statement to its darkest place in this unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong.

So I figured it would be really bad or… possibly really good. Turns out it was the latter. This book is completely unpredictable. Just when you think the hubby is such a nice guy he can’t possibly have done it, he starts talking about her perfectly shaped head again and picturing it all bashed in as she crawls across the kitchen floor. Is he just imagining the worst? Because surely that crazy chic is the killer… Or maybe it never happened at all.

On top of all the sudden stops and 25 mph curves when you think you’re cruising down the straight highway of this plot, it’s also a heart-wrenching story of a marriage gone wrong. But not really in a thriller, these people are just crazy sort of way, not at first. It’s just the story of a couple who have hit a few bumps in the road, dealing with layoffs during the recession, ailing parents, and a general lapse in communication. It feels real, like it could happen to anyone.

Then there’s the prose. There was a point in the Kindle sample when I knew I was going to buy the book. It was on the second page:

6-0-0 the clock said — in my face, first thing I saw. 6-0-0. It felt different. I rarely woke at such a rounded time. I was a man of jagged risings; 8:43, 11:51, 9:26. My life was alarmless.

The characters have such wonderful characterizations, I would know them if they walked into my local bar. And yet, I wouldn’t know them well enough to say whether they were capable of murder. And that’s exactly how Gillian Flynn has left the reader feeling. All of these characters have flaws, the trouble is determining which of these flaws is criminal, and according to whom.

In the end, I felt vindicated in my pick because the scene of the crime is just outside of Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Mark Twain and the inspiration for Tom Sawyer. It’s a sleepy town where the tourists — who used to come out in droves — are no longer visiting to write their names on the white fence that Tom painted. Turns out I got a little American history in after all.

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An unsettling setting

If you could plop a plot anywhere, where would it be?

I’m partial to extremes. The chaotic, bustling anonymity  of New York City is of course a very popular backdrop for novels. But it doesn’t have to have skyscrapers to be chaotic. Death in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer won me over with Dyer’s portrayal of the Indian city on the Ganges River, tumbling with human taxis, funeral processions, beggars and tourists.

The other irresistible setting is the small town, the quiet valley that exists only to the people who live there. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout was set in a coastal town in Maine, where every plot line was discussed by, or hidden from the entire town. A character who could walk by a protagonist in NYC unknown and unnoticed would be of glaring significance in Olive’s Crosby.

A remote location especially enhances a murder mystery. The characters naturally know each other, so the shock of any crime and the long-standing belief that something like that couldn’t have happened here makes the mystery that much more intriguing.  Alan Bradley sets his brilliant Flavia de Luce novels in an unknown quiet country town in England. Flavia, the brilliant 11-year-old detective that she is, is quick to suspect anyone of the murders and other unsavory occurrences in the village…which is perhaps why her father would prefer that she keep to her attic laboratory. Another mystery author, Louise Penny, writes from the Quebec homicide department’s perspective, but many of the murders are actually quite far from the city, a few in Three Pines, a town that isn’t even on the map, and her latest (forthcoming in August 2012) at a monastery deep in the woods that no one has entered except the two dozen monks who live there.

That chilling idea that the little lady who runs the library or the monk sleeping down the hall could be a killer is all part of the draw. And of course, a story can find itself in a spaceship in the future or in NYC when forests full of running deer dominated the island. But you can probably guess where I’d plop my plot. In a valley somewhere in nowhere land. Where houses are wooden shacks and the mountains and waterfalls behold more beauty than the finest homes in LA. Where everyone has a purpose, so that when something goes wrong, for something always must, it means that the little valley was not running according to plan.