By Gillian Flynn, Crown Publishing Group, 432 pages, $25.
By Gina Webb
Relationships can be murder — for any number of reasons.
In “Gone Girl, ” Gillian Flynn’s devilishly clever he said/she said thriller, even the best marriage is tested when the wife goes missing and the husband finds himself at the center of a murder investigation.
Amy Dunne and her husband, Nick, were the perfect couple. Amy, a beautiful, brainy writer of questionnaires for women’s magazines, met Nick, a “gorgeous … uncomplicated” pop-culture writer, in New York City in the early 1990s. She fell in love with his ability to make her happy; he adored “the girl of the big laugh and the easy ways.”
Each year on their anniversary the “happiest couple on the block” take part in a treasure hunt, a whimsical, sentimental quest devised by Amy that requires Nick to answer a series of questions based on the highlights of their romantic past. He rarely gets any of the answers right, but that doesn’t matter. Not at first.
Then comes 2008’s financial meltdown, when both are fired from their jobs. For a while, they live off Amy’s fat trust fund, the result of a series of best-selling books her parents wrote about a child, based on their daughter, called “Amazing Amy” — a “precocious moppet” with an alarming ability to choose correctly every time a moral issue arose.
When a bad investment forces Amy’s parents to borrow back the bulk of her trust fund, Nick suggests a last-ditch measure: a move to his hometown of North Carthage, Mo., and a rental house on the Mississippi River. Borrowing what’s left of Amy’s money, he opens a bar that keeps them afloat.
But there’s no salvaging Amy’s dissatisfaction, especially with Nick, who can’t seem to do anything right anymore, or the growing distance between them. Amy’s chronic unhappiness is the worst part: “My wife was no longer my wife but a razor-wire knot daring me to unloop her, and I was not up to the job with my thick, numb, nervous fingers.”
Still, as bad as things are, the last thing Nick expects is to come home on their fifth wedding anniversary and find his wife missing. There are signs of a struggle and he has no alibi for where he was when she disappeared. Though the cops don’t come right out and say it, Nick can see the mounting evidence all points to one person: “Everyone know it’s always the husband. Just watch ‘Dateline.’”
Or just read Amy’s diary. Alternating with Nick’s present-day account, Amy’s memoirs take us back to their earliest days, when Nick was loving, attentive and oodles of fun. His behavior changes when he can’t find work, however, and the diary begins to log a frightening series of bizarre and menacing incidents.
Their parallel stories reveal more twists than a pair of Slinkies. Nervous Nick makes a startling confession that changes the game. Devoted wife Amy reveals that hubby was a class-conscious loser who resented her independently wealthy status. She claims she made every attempt to cheer him out of his scary slump; in Nick’s dreams, Amy crawls across their kitchen floor, her hair matted with blood.
If the whiplash from keeping track of the couple’s stories weren’t enough, Flynn hauls up an outrageous cavalcade of suspects who might have had it in for Amy: Nick’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father, a childhood fan of “Amazing Amy, ” one of Amy’s ex-boyfriends and an allegedly violent crew of unemployed, homeless factory workers entrenched in the burnt-out shell of an abandoned mall. In short, almost everyone in town, including Nick’s twin sister.
Then there’s the sinister cat-and-mouse of Amy’s annual anniversary treasure hunt, with its cheery, rhyming, written clues that take an abrupt turn toward the dark, mean and crazy.
The mushrooming suspense, the plot twists, the way the craziness is grounded in an economically depressed town rife with the degradation and panic of unemployment — where a happily-ever-after marriage isn’t the only thing that’s gone — all this has shot the Missouri-born author’s book to the best-seller list with good reason.
But what makes the novel so addictive is the minefield Flynn throws her characters into, all too familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship. It’s that explosive territory we enter when the romance cools and the mask comes off and a different face appears. Where we wonder right along with Nick Dunne, “What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you?”
To what lengths would we go to win them back? “Because isn’t that the point of every relationship, ” Amy asks, “to be known by someone else, to be understood? He gets me. She gets me.”
This is where “Gone Girl” leaves the reader at the end, in that most comfortably dangerous place of all: sleeping with the enemy.
By Gina Webb, AJC Arts and Culture Blog