“Gone Girl”: Perception and Gender Roles, Wrapped Up in A Thriller Bow

I’ve always loved books that play around with the audience’s expectations, and with the voice narrating the story — Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, was no exception. The novel switches the point of view each chapter: one chapter told in first person by Nick, the husband in the novel, and the following chapter told by his wife, Amy. While Nick’s chapters are in the present tense, following the arc of the story, Amy’s are all old diary entries, that detail the relationship from the very start. That alone was enough to draw me in — the clever plays on self-perception and gender roles kept me reading, even when the plot itself was slightly contrived.

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The book jacket reads: Marriage can be a real killer. On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

Warning now: there may be unintentional spoilers littered throughout. A number of my friends have mentioned big “twists” and “surprises” — I’ll be honest, I wasn’t terribly surprised at any point (this is not a knock — I was reading with great care, to see if I could figure out the “twists” — I always think it’s a commendation to a writer when the twists make sense, thematically and plotwise. I hate when a writer just throws a twist without any earlier hints — it feels cheap). But, if you fear having a plot point ruined, just go out, grab the book, and give it a read. In typical thriller fashion it’s quick and easy — but it’s better than most mass-market contrivances.

What I most enjoyed were the subtle plays on gender dynamics and self-perception. Amy and Nick provide perfect foils throughout the book. They are both horrible, manipulative, terrible people — and kind of perfect for each other. Amy is the product of dual ph.D. parents who wanted a child so badly that not only did they spoil her rotten, but they shared their pure joy at having her with the world. She was as much an idea to them as a real person — they made her into a character in a series of books, and in turn, she began developing her own characters to play out. She’s vengeful, independent, clever, and constantly seeks love and attention.

On the other side of the pendulum is Nick: raised by an abusive father and a small town mother, he’s had to work his entire life. Like Amy he is good-looking and charming: unlike Amy, he only knows how to function on the surface: he’s not vengeful or hateful, but he’s incredibly careless. When they first meet, they’re both at their best — Amy has chosen to “act out” a particularly charming facade, and Nick is well-employed, handsome, and liked by all. They are both their best selves. That does not, of course, last, and as Nick is unable to deal with difficulty (not just that he suffers, but has an actual character flaw that prevents him from being unliked or alone) he doesn’t love Amy as much as she wants to be loved. In turn she ditches the “cool girl” persona and becomes cold and sometimes-cruel. In turn, Nick begins having an affair.

But, just as they bring out the worst in each other, they kind of bring out the best: Amy uses her brilliance, patience, and manipulation to frame Nick for murder. Nick, who knows Amy better than she knows herself, employs the perfect scheme to have her regret her manipulation. Amy, who knows Nick better than he knows himself, does the one thing that she knows will keep him by her side for ever. And Nick then does the one thing that Amy can never accept.

It’s these slowly unfolding personalities that are such a joy for the reader. Most people that I’ve spoken to have enjoyed the plot — it’s a bit of a caper, in which the characters are supposed to be one step ahead of the reader. THere are a few factual inconsistencies, however, and a few plot points that don’t really flesh out, that kept the plot from being perfect for me — but the characters reactions to one another, and the slow unfolding of motive made it worth it.

And, even more interesting than that, are the gender dynamics at play throughout the novel. Much of the novel centers around the media circus, and the way that Nick and Amy are being portrayed to the media. Amy wants to be seen as the kind, generous, beautiful, innocent wife, and she wants Nick painted as the philandering, abusive husband. For his part, Nick clearly wants to be the grieving husband, and Amy to be the heartless bitch. That makes sense on a very basic, practical level. But the novel goes beyond that, and looks in particular at how men view women, and women men.

Nick, for instance, thinks very little of women in general. He’s used to them bowing to his every whim: from his mother, who cut the crusts off his bread until she died, to his sister, who he nearly implicates in a murder, to his wife, who he expects to fund his bar. As he meets women throughout, he focuses first on their looks, second on how they can help him, and only thirdly on their own virtues (or lack thereof). There are only two women that he really recognizes as having any inherent value: one is an unattractive woman cop, and the other is a married black woman who throws jellybeans at him (and Amy, of course. . .there’s always Amy.)

He plays himself as the “good guy”: the kind of guy that women want to bring home to meet their parents. He wants to be seen as smart, witty, genuine, compassionate. . .but he doesn’t actually have most of those qualities. When Amy no longer hero-worships him, he turns to another woman. He convinces himself that he loves her (so that he can still be a “good guy”) but is perfectly fine with dumping her later. He’s the kind of guy that hates to see a woman cry, because of how it hurts her.

Amy is much the same way. She’s used to being a beautiful woman, to having men hold open doors and fall in love with her. She loves Nick when he worships her, and when he stops, she comes to hate him. An old paramor from college is seen as someone to use. A man who doesn’t fall in love with her is “punished.” She even tries to use Nick’s abusive father — who has Alzheimer’s and is thus unlikely to help her in any way.

Amy knows how to play to men: she knows how to play the “Cool Girl” and the “Naive Housewife” and the “Loving Forgiver.” She does not know how to play “independent strong woman” which is perhaps her greatest failing, just as Nick’s greatest is his inability to be on his own. They are both desperately in need of other people’s validation. They can’t be happy without being lauded and praised.

The novel skirts around the theme of protection — of women making themselves into something that needs to be protected. The strongest characters in the novel are those women who DON’T need men: Nick’s mother, an unattractive female cop, and a lawyer (who, while married, is delightful in her own right). Most of the women, however, get what they want by using “female weakness” to gain power: whether it’s Amy wreaking revenge, a woman getting media coverage, or another keeping her stunted son near to her side.

It’s a good book, and a versatile one: this is a book that could be read on a summer beach vacation, as part of a Book Club, or for it’s literary merit. It’s an incredibly smart book: parts are mapped out for the mass audience, while subtle themes are teased out for nerdy bibliophiles. Take a peek — I can almost guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

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About splashfromabove

I believe firmly that through reflection, we gain in appreciation. My blog is all about taking a step back from what I read, view, or discover, and looking at it slightly askance.
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One Response to “Gone Girl”: Perception and Gender Roles, Wrapped Up in A Thriller Bow

  1. Melinda says:

    I really liked reading this novel! I think that it’s a good book for discussion, I just had an issue with the language, but I know that it was for the purpose of character development and portrayal, so I over looked it. How twisted was the ending? 🙂 You can check out my review, if you want..

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