Sunday, September 21, 2014

One Book, Two Takes: Gone Girl

A few weeks back, my friend and fellow writer Wendy Ledger mentioned that she was about to read Gone Girl, a blockbuster novel that’s about to be made into a movie. I was looking for something to read too, and I had an idea: What if we both read Gone Girl, and then each wrote a short, personal review of it? And what if I posted both reviews together on my blog right here? So we did it—without having any idea what the other was writing, or whether she even liked the book. Let’s see how the experiment works.

Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn
432 pages
Broadway Books, 2012

Too Cool for School?
Reviewed by Wendy Ledger

If I were to teach a class on novel writing, I would want Gone Girl to be included in the syllabus. You could discuss structure. This book is told from two points of view: the husband and the wife. It plays with time. The book starts with the husband shortly before his wife’s disappearance. Then the wife submits her point of view through past diary entries. In this way, we learn some of the back story of this couple’s relationship. So, we not only have two different voices at two different times but also through two different means of communication. How is a story different when the narrator tells it to you directly and when we read written entries? At a point in the novel, the diary is abandoned, and the wife tells her story in present time, and more is revealed. The voices are distinct and intense. Reliability is an issue. I was immediately hooked by the structure of this book.
      However, I had trouble with the characterizations. While I was reading Gone Girl, I felt like a floating head. My heart and soul were not engaged. I still compulsively turned the pages, but I ultimately did not care about any of the characters. In this story of high drama, where a person is missing and there are accusations of foul play, I found that I didn’t care about any of the characters. I also questioned the investigation. I felt that certain things would have been discovered by the authorities in a much faster time.
      There were moments when I could imagine that I could empathize with these characters, particularly with the wife, Amy. I was fascinated by the account of her childhood. What would be it like to have parents who used your life as fodder for their livelihood? How would it feel to have a character named after you and whose books followed you through your life experiences? That intrigued me, and yet I remained put off.
      In the novel, Amy talked about how, when she met her husband, she pretended that she was cool, and she felt that he fell in love with that veneer. I ended up feeling that way about Gone Girl. It is slick. It is well worth a read, particularly if you are interested in the craft of writing, but I would not speak of it with any fondness. However, I am looking forward to the movie. I feel like the ultimate chump in admitting that, but it’s true. Why do I want to see it? First of all, I can completely imagine Ben Affleck as Nick, the disappointing husband. He seems perfect for that role. I also want to see if I feel the same way about the characters when I see them on the big screen. I know that, when I have seen Anne Tyler’s novels translated into film, the characters have seemed different to me. Their lovable quirks that worked so well on the printed page did not seem as endearing in their celluloid counterparts. Will the cinematic adaptation of Gone Girl make me feel differently about these characters? I want to know. In addition, I want to see how they handle the structure in the movie. Will they have so many time changes? Earlier this year, I read that Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, changed the ending in the screenplay. Recently, I heard that the ending isn’t that different. Is this yet another manipulation? I have to find out what’s true.

Wendy Ledger is a writer, editor, and transcriptionist who lives in Ben Lomond, California. She writes about The Good Wife here

Be Gone, Girl
Reviewed by Amy Miller

First, I have to say that if I hadn’t committed to reviewing this book, I would have stopped after 50 pages and tossed it on the Goodwill pile. (Note to future rash reviewer self!) I hated the wife, and with the author’s device of both spouses telling the story in alternating chapters, there was way too much of her early on. She was such a snarky, cooler-than-thou entitled hipster that I couldn’t figure out what her husband ever saw in her.
      But that two-narrator structure ended up saving the book. It kept creating questions that intrigued me: Where will these two stories, told in different time frames, collide? Which of these people is lying? And Flynn’s ploy of cliffhanger chapter endings, even if it felt cheap at times, also kept me turning the pages. Gone Girl is pretty much a textbook on how to keep a reader hooked.
      Flynn strikes a tricky balance between suspense and literary fiction: The twists and machinations are all thriller, while the rich backstory and character development lean toward literary fiction. For the most part that balance worked, but for me, it fell apart at the ending, which veered way off in the literary direction, for reasons I won’t get into. After all that tilt-a-whirl plotting, revenge, and deception, I wanted a good suspense-novel smack at the end.
      Knowing that the movie version of this is about to come out, I kept imagining actors in various roles (though, alas, none of these people were actually cast). Cherry Jones is clearly the world-wise detective, and I wish Jason Robards were still with us to play the half-crazy dad. For the rest, I plunked the American Hustle cast in there: Amy Adams as the icy wife, Christian Bale the hapless husband, Jennifer Lawrence the ditzy homewrecker, Bradley Cooper the overfed celebrity lawyer. It will be a terrible date movie, though; Gone Girl is, as much as anything, the story of a marriage—a really f***ed-up one. 
      One thing the book does well is take us inside one of those lurid media-soaked murder cases where a pretty, white, pregnant wife in some small town is killed and the husband is accused. This one looks a lot like the very sad Laci Peterson case, which turned the sleepy community of Modesto, California, upside down ten years ago. Gone Girl hits all those notes—the paparazzi camped outside the husband’s house, the muckraking cable news host fanning the flames, the slick high-profile lawyer, trending and Twitter and the endless true-crime newsfeed that passes as entertainment in our country. In fact, the story may feel dated in a few years, it’s so much a product of our times.*
      The plotting gets a little lumpy late in the book, with some minor characters surfacing and then disappearing when their story-moving part was done. And that ending sort of gave me hives. When it was over, I felt relieved to get away from these people who schemed so ferociously to screw each other over. But you know, it was fun to get my head spun for a while. I was just happy to get off the ride.

* Speaking of our times, I’ve got to take my hat off to any author whose book has more than 22,000 reader reviews on Amazon.

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