There are wounds that mark the body and wounds that mark the psyche. Often, but not always, they do both.
In her first two books—the Edgar-nominated "Sharp Objects" and New York Times best-selling "Dark Places"—Chicago novelist Gillian Flynn gave us heroines whose mutilated bodies testify to harrowing trauma and closely guarded secrets. In her third, the rivetingly twisted "Gone Girl," she gives us the physically flawless Amy Elliott Dunne.
The beautiful and clever Amy and her journalist-turned-bar owner husband, Nick, are five years into a marriage that, to put it mildly, hasn't gone as planned. Cut loose from their New York magazine jobs, forced to dig deep into Amy's trust fund to bail out her fiscally hapless parents, hit with news that Nick's mom is fatally ill, they swap their Brooklyn brownstone for a rented McMansion in Nick's recession-busted Mississippi River hometown of Carthage, Mo.
Then, on their fifth anniversary, something else goes terribly wrong: Nick returns home to find the front door open, signs of struggle, and Amy mysteriously gone. The disappearance quickly gains widespread attention, in large part because Amy happens to be "Amazing Amy"—the real-life inspiration for her psychologist parents' best-selling children's book series.
The urgent search for answers moves along parallel tracks. While detectives embark on an official missing person investigation, Nick pursues a trail of clues meant for him alone: messages in a scavenger hunt orchestrated by Amy, designed to lead him step-by-step to a surprise anniversary gift. This annual marital tradition has been an ongoing sore point, another fault line in the couple's crumbling storybook romance. Do Nick's failures to tap into his wife's thinking reflect a troubling narcissism and waning commitment to his marriage? Or is something else going on? Who is Amy really?
At one level, "Gone Girl" presents like any number of conventional thrillers. All the pieces are there: An assortment of likely suspects. Tantalizing secrets and red herrings. A story that cross-cuts points of view, as well as past and present, doling out facts in strategic service to the narrative engine. But like so much else in this unsettling book, these devices are not what they seem. While serving their usual functions, they also do much more, launching us into an unnerving dissection of the fallout of failed dreams.
At another level, Flynn offers up a cautionary tale about the dangers of confusing persona with personality, about tying our sense of who we are to how others perceive us. Such dangers are especially great in an age that expects—indeed, often rewards—facile self-reinvention. "It's a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless automat of characters," Nick muses at one point.
How such pressures can corrode lives is one of Flynn's central themes here. She delves deep into the myriad ways that frustrated expectations poison romantic love, replacing protective adoration with lethal bitterness. "It had been an awful fairy-tale of reverse transformation," Nick says wearily, reflecting on his years with Amy. "She was not the thing she became, the thing I feared most: an angry woman." Counters Amy: "Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?" "Gone Girl" offers a deadly take on just this question.
While Flynn's characters suffer at the hands of each other, they also suffer at the hands of a brutal economy, a timely stressor that elicits some of the novel's strongest writing. The "destination" shopping mall whose closure sent Carthage into an economic death spiral is "two million square feet of echo." "[T]here's no app for a bourbon buzz on a warm day in a cool, dark bar. The world will always want a drink," Nick says, explaining his decision to open a bar with his twin sister. And later: "We were Dunnes, and we were done, and strangely content about it."
For all its strengths, this isn't a book for those inclined to true-to-life fiction. A former chief TV critic at Entertainment Weekly, Flynn has no qualms about shaping reality to suit the needs of her high-wire plot. At times, there's a slightly cartoonish aspect to her cast of characters, and more than once, their over-the-top scheming strains credulity. In this, "Gone Girl" marks a departure from Flynn's first two outings, and some fans of those previous efforts may find this disappointing.
But what "Gone Girl" lacks in realism, it more than makes up for in inventiveness and narrative bravura. Within this single novel, there are many warring stories: The stories Nick and Amy tell about themselves, the stories they tell each other. The stories others tell about them, and the stories they tell about each other. What's at stake is not simply factual truth but something more profound: Who holds the final power to write the story of the life this toxic couple shares.
By Gillian Flynn
Crown, 432 pages, $25
Amy Gutman is the author of the suspense novels "Equivocal Death" and "The Anniversary," both published by Little, Brown. She writes the blog Plan B Nation, and her work has appeared in many online and print publications including the New York Times, Salon, and SecondAct.