Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Made for each other

OK, even though I feel like I'm the last person to have read this, I'll try to keep the Gone Girl spoilers to a minimum. Gillian Flynn's "breakout" novel about a really, really bad marriage has plenty of twists and turns (and an ending that irritated a lot of people -- which surprised me [not the ending, the irritation] -- but to talk any more about it would, indeed, spoil the novel for the few remaining non-readers) but the narrative stems most truthfully from the two extremely vivid characters, so there's no trickery in the story; instead sit back for hours and hours of great storytelling.

It's July 5, 2012, the fifth wedding anniversary (wood) of Nick and Amy Dunne. This golden couple has had a rough few years, both lost their jobs in journalism in the economic meltdown and then Amy's trust fund had to be raided by her parents. Amy's parents are the authors of a best-selling children's series about "Amazing Amy" (forget at your peril that Amy is amazing), but the books aren't selling the way they used to. To top it off, Nick's father's dementia gets worse at the same time as his mother is diagnosed with cancer, so the couple decide to leave their fabulous Brooklyn townhouse to return to Nick's hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. They've been living there for two years. Nick hasn't yet purchased his wife's anniversary gift, but he knows that Amy's traditional (and frustrating) cute-clue-driven present hunt awaits him when he returns home from the bar he owns (purchased with the last of Amy's money) with his sister. A phone call from his neighbor sends him home early -- to find a ransacked living room and no sign of his wife.

With a narrative that switches from the feckless Nick (who quickly becomes the police's number one suspect) to Type-A Amy (who we get to know through diary entries describing her romance and marriage to Nick), a picture of their not-so-picture-perfect marriage slowly and tantalizingly emerges: Two not-very-nice people whose epic dysfunction has ripples well beyond the confines of their McMansion on the Mississippi. If a reader wasn't having so much fun following the circuitous plot, she might want to take a long, hot shower to wash away the grubbiness that rubs off from the Dunnes.

I like being led around by a skilled author (and a couple of unreliable narrators), anticipating the next twist just for the sheer fun of wondering what it might be. Each one (and there are a few) drops with a satisfactory "aha" -- accompanied by a moment or two where you cast your mind back to what you thought you knew that has now been stood satisfyingly on its ear. Or the equally pleasurable activity of parsing where the clues to what you now know were hidden. Then there's the parts where you sympathize with Nick ... no wait, with Amy. No, wait ... Nick and Amy are like a train wreck, you cannot stop watching them until it's all over (or is it over?).

The novel also skewers our instant media culture, and the rapid leap to judgment if it makes a "good" story. Both Nick and Amy are products of that culture, of course, so there's a certain rightness to them becoming victims of it. Gone Girl is also the portrait of a marriage (a pretty sour one) and all the compromises and white (and non-white) lies that can take place inside of one.

Nick and Amy are almost perfectly cast with Kirby Heyborne and Julia Whelan. Heyborne's light voice is just right for Nick, whose self-pity is palpable as he tries to explain his way out of one incriminating action after another. As Nick finds himself deeper and deeper in trouble, the sense of panic in Heyborne's delivery works beautifully. Thanks to my new blogger labels (which you can click on to see what I've heard), I can see that I've listened to him read seven different books (all for kids or teens), but I have never liked him as much as I did listening to him embody the hapless, yet conniving Nick Dunne.

Whelan is also excellent. I've heard her read three times, all books for teens, so Amazing Amy (who, in many ways, has not yet left childhood) seems a natural step for her youthful delivery. Amy is a serious control freak and know-it-all, and her tight grasp of the events of the narrative is evident in her clipped, business-like -- laced with a bitter edge -- delivery.  She has a riff on what makes a "cool" girl that is just terrific. When things start to go a little wrong for Amy (I will risk a teeny spoiler and say that I just loved the scenes where we first meet Amy), there's a little more edge in her voice. But, really, Amy never panics.

Each does a good job voicing each other, along with a varied cast of characters that include Nick's demented father, his supportive sister, Amy's needy parents, an old admirer of Amy's, a rapacious television investigative show hostess, a big-time lawyer who defends guilty husbands, some poor white trash, and a couple of honest cops. There isn't a moment in the audiobook that drags, even though it clocks in at nearly 20 hours.

The audiobook tells me that the author's name is hard-g Gillian (while the Gill of a couple of books ago is a soft-g ... must be a Scots thing). Things like this are always interesting to me. Flynn is experiencing that surge of interest "it" authors experience: tons of holds on books that have been out for a couple of years. There are nearly 800 holds on Gone Girl at my library ... and another 130 on the audiobook! I guess I got to it before about 1,000 people here in Portland. I'm not the last to read it after all.  It was entertaining to read all the spoilers out there on the world wide web ... after the fact, of course. I'm not the type of reader who peeks at the end.

[Nick shares a sentimental story with more than one character about the job he once held portraying Tom Sawyer, whitewashing that fence at the birthplace of Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri. This photo of the birthplace was taken by Andrew Balet and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne and Julia Whelan
Random House Audio, 2012.  19:12

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