By 2020, I was grousing that “Gone Girl” had started a “fad” for contrived suspense novels “that rest on nonstop plot reversals.” I pronounced that “it’s a fad whose time has come and should be gone, girl.”
Fat chance. The double helix structure of “Gone Girl” — in which husband and wife Nick and Amy Dunne narrate twisting and turning stories that obsessively dramatize and undermine the details of Amy’s disappearance on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary — has become canonized into a distinct domestic suspense form of its own. The 2014 film of “Gone Girl,” starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, further extended the novel’s serpentine reach. Not since Italian philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco wrote the surprise bestseller “The Name of the Rose” in 1980 has an entertaining mystery novel so elegantly doubled as a reflection on the instability of truth.
Reviews, like stories, can be unstable, too. What I realized after rereading “Gone Girl” on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of its publication was that, as the years passed, the distinctive power of Flynn’s blockbuster had faded for me. I’d been thinking of the novel through the gray scrim of its lesser imitators. In truth, my sour comments on the literary copycats “Gone Girl” has spawned have nothing to do with the original: a macabre, ingenious, psychologically astute cat-and-mouse tour de force of marriage and malevolence.
Let’s recap: “Gone Girl” recounts a story of love gone wrong. (Or, maybe, it was never love in the first place.) Nick and Amy Dunne were once young magazine writers who lived a glossy life together in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. As print journalism collapsed in the new millennium, the couple lost their respective jobs. Credit card expenses began to mount, so Nick urged a belt-tightening move back to his hometown: North Carthage, Mo. Drawing money out of Amy’s trust fund (another story in itself), Nick and his twin sister, Go, opened a bar and Nick held onto scraps of his professional identity by teaching a journalism class at the local college. Amy sat in their rented house and stewed. (Or, at least, that’s how Nick sees the situation.)
“Gone Girl” opens on the morning of the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary; by then, bitterness as thick as Mississippi mud has accreted around their relationship. Here’s Nick describing the origins of their annual anniversary “treasure hunt”:
“My wife loved games, mostly mind games, but also actual games of amusement, and for our anniversary she always set up an elaborate treasure hunt, with each clue leading to the hiding place of the next clue until I reached the end, and my present. It was what her dad always did for her mom on their anniversary. … But I did not grow up in Amy’s household, I grew up in mine, and the last present I remember my dad giving my mom was an iron, set on the kitchen counter, no wrapping paper. … The problem with Amy’s treasure hunts: I never figured out the clues.”
Sometime later that day, Amy disappears. The front door of the house stands open; the declawed house cat is wandering outside; the living room is in disarray. (The local police think that scene looks staged.) Chapters of the novel alternate between Nick’s account of his frantic search for Amy via the anniversary treasure hunt clues she’s left behind and entries from Amy’s diary, beginning with her head-over-heels first encounter with dreamy Nick. But cracks soon sprout in both their narratives. Why does Nick have a secret disposable phone? Why would Amy, who’s been so sweet in her early diary entries, suddenly sneer that she’s entitled to her trust fund because her parents “plagiarized my childhood” for their successful “Amazing Amy” children’s books? This is only the tip of the interpretive iceberg.
All mysteries are invitations to close reading; all great mysteries show us readers just how deficient our close reading skills are. “Gone Girl” bombards us with testimonies, letters, phone calls, riddling treasure hunt clues and the aforementioned diary entries, prodding us to read smarter. (The new special edition, issued to mark the novel’s first decade, includes 10 pages of previously unpublished material — mostly diary entries providing a tad more of Amy’s childhood backstory. They’re not needed, but they’ll please the novel’s most rabid fans.)
By novel’s end, most if not all of us readers will have to face up to the fact that we’ve flunked the sinister close reading test “Gone Girl” proffers. I’ve now flunked that test twice — surely proof that “Gone Girl” is and remains a really great mystery.
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
Gone Girl: Special Anniversary Edition
Ballantine. 442 pp. Paperback, $18.
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