19 November 2017

The Fearlessly Fantabulous Flynn

by Leigh Lundin

Dale Andrews first brought Gillian Flynn to my attention long before she wildly captured movie goers’ imagination with a thriller based upon her third novel.

Gone Girl (2012) impressed me immensely, especially the plotting, one of the best mapped out stories I’ve read. To be sure, not everyone loved it. Marital cheating put off our Melodie Campbell and others. Some found it difficult to find likeable characters. A few thought it indulgently slow in places. Me? I admired it and reviewed it. It persuaded me to read her earlier novels.

Today’s article isn’t so much a review as a discussion about brilliant writing. I’ve become quite taken by Gillian Flynn. She might rate as one of the best novelists of our time. Gone Girl’s plot so dazzled me, I suspect I missed more subtle aspects, but I recently knocked off her first two novels, which cemented her reputation with me… and oddly one of those books disappointed me. But hold on…

Sharp Objects (2006) brings us Camille Preaker, a newspaper reporter who returns to her home town to research disappearing girls. This novel proves especially difficult to talk about without giving away too much, but let’s say Camille has problems… lots of problems, both past and present day.

Critics sparingly use the coveted words ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’ when talking about writing. Google those terms (at least after this article goes on-line), and you’ll see Gillian Flynn. She has a naked way of scratching words on paper. She doesn’t merely strip her characters bare, it feels like the writer herself types damning words while self-honestly exposed, self-flagellating, rawly nude, damp and shivering amongst cold drafts.

I can’t think of any author that comes close to this style. Strangely enough Anne Frank crossed my mind, the tiny observations and self-exploration, some edited out by a father intent on preserving the purity of her reputation.

The plot electrifies. As the story progressed, I narrowed the perpetrator down to two possibilities, and it worked out much as surmised. Camille manages to make mistakes, one nearly fatal and the other… nearly fatal. A sympathetic reader wants so much for the troubled heroine.

Dark Places (2009) brings out mixed feelings. Gillian Flynn has proved herself at every aspect of writing… observation, characterization, word-smithing, insight, suspense, and especially plot… except…

Seven-year-old Libby Day and her brother Ben, age 15, are the only two survivors of the mass murder of their family. Ben’s imprisoned, sent there by his tiny sister’s testimony. Libby, now an adult, is troubled, fearful, and doesn’t quite trust her memory of events. Persuaded by a club that investigates unsolved murders, she begins to look back… and forward.

One of the crafts Flynn handles so well is male viewpoints. She credits her husband and male friends, but I believe her innate understanding is better than she admits. This insight and empathy shines in all three of her novels.

Again, in this novel, her close observations and word crafting virtually invite study. She handles the tension well. Fully-formed characters populate the book. But I have a problem… or her perpetrator does.

Lewis Carroll’s White Queen tells Alice she believes as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Flynn asks us to believe only two, but they choked me.

The killer is introduced so late in the novel, I almost couldn’t believe I’d read it correctly. Then I’m asked to accept a premise for the killings that borders on Alice’s impossible… let’s say Improbable with a capital I. By introducing the murderer so late, it doesn’t give the reader time to accept the unlikely motive. Suspending readers’ disbelief takes much more time, effort, and consideration.

Sandwiched between two ultra-brilliant novels, I didn’t expect such a flaw to cap an otherwise fine novel. Not everyone agrees with me– it was nominated for a CWA Steel Dagger Award and a horror award called the Black Quill. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so it’s possible the director and writers dealt with these issues.

The Grownup. Saturday I ordered two books, one John Floyd’s recommendation of Gin Phillips’ Fierce Kingdom and a novella published in hardback by today’s go-to girl, Gillian Flynn’s The Grownup. After posting the main article, I downloaded the audiobook, closed my eyes, and listened for an hour.

Referred to variously as a ghost story and an homage to a ghost story, it’s a sixty page tale about an, uh, hooker who’s a psychic, right, and a woman’s weird and despised stepson, and a haunted house and… Fun and at times funny, it’s quite different from her other ventures. Give it a shot.

Gillian Flynn… Her books, her films… What is your assessment?


  1. I've only read her Gone Girl, which I generally liked, despite the unlikable characters. However the plot had a big hole that ruined the whole thing for me. Oh well.

  2. Oh no! Don't leave us hanging, Barb!


      I don't remember the plot well enough to be clear here, and my details may be off. But as I recall, near the end, the ultimate success of the evil wife included setting up an old friend. But that friend easily could have had (and maybe did have) an alibi. And no one ever thought to ask or check. Come on!

  3. It wasn't the marital cheating that put me off, Leigh. It was the breaking of viewpoint, for the most part. If you are writing in first person, you are making a promise to the reader: the protagonist is telling you the story. If you break that promise, you lose my interest. Simple as that. However I did read it to see what the fuss is about. And I agree with Barb.

  4. Thanks for giving Flynn a shout-out, Leigh! ...though not like she needs the publicity, of course. She seems to be doing pretty well. ;-)

    I taught Gone Girl last semester at Mason and it was much fun to dive in with a scholarly/analytical eye; I taught it alongside Lauren Groff's Fates & Furies, with which it shares some similarities: a troubled marriage, narration from each side of the relationship, some pretty devastating twists.....

    ...though Melodie, I'm not sure I know what you mean about "breaking of viewpoint." Do you mean having two narrators? Or the shift in one of those narrations? I'm assuming the latter, but.... Obviously we have lots of unreliable narrators in literature, and those can be tons of fun to read--and in this case, the unreliability, the manipulation of audience, is purposeful and part of the game, playing on our expectations (not just as readers counting on that promise you mentioned but also in terms of our social expectations as well, how we "read" women in the real world maybe).

    Spoiler Alert! Oh, wait, I can dodge the spoiler maybe. Curious if you have trouble with one of Agatha Christie's best-known surprise endings as well--which also counts on a bit of shady narration......

  5. You'll like the Gin Phillips book, Leigh. And I enjoyed Gone Girl (novel AND movie) in spite of its flaws.

    My only criticism of Gillian Flynn is that she beat me for the Edgar Award a couple years ago. (What's even worse is that she deserved the win.)

  6. That was indeed a good story that took the Edgar, John--but I was pulling for you! Your story was terrific as well!

  7. Barb, after volume I of an ambitious ‘proof of all mathematics’ (or some such) was published, I think it was a young Bertrand Russell who zeroed in on a fallacy. Volume II, about to go to press, carried a note that Russell’s contradiction invalidated the work.

    Melodie, the worst case of messy (and frankly awful) PoV I found in a thriller set in DC by a Washington ‘insider’. His wife was a government lawyer and he was connected in some way too. This thing made the bestsellers list, but I was aghast. It contained unstructured multiple PoVs, including two first person, one who documents his own death at a dumpster. (They shot me and now I’m dying… gack!) Clearly he hadn’t learned the rules of PoV.

    Art, I’m glad you like Flynn too. I’m wracking my brain to think which Christie story you might mean. Was it one about someone who ‘loved too much’ and a thorn?

    John, the least the MWA could have done was a shared award! I’m looking forward to Fierce Kingdom. I’ve spent time in and around zoos, so it should be interesting.

  8. As Leigh alludes I'm a big fan. Of the three books mentioned my least favorite was Dark Places. I couldn't get engaged in the story. None of the characters were particularly likable, though the same can be said of Gone Girl and I thought it was super -- wonderful use of the unreliable narrator(s!). And I actually liked very much the switch in viewpoint in one of those narrations (alluded to by Art). The switch was well explained and I thought worked very well.

    I have not read The Grownup because I generally grumble at novellas being advertised (and priced) as though they are a full-fledged novel.

  9. And, by the way, the BIGGEST hole in the Gone Girl plot is that it is IMPOSSIBLE to drive from Hannibal Missouri to Ladue Missouri for lunch and be back by mid-afternoon. Gillian Flynn and I have in common that we each lived in Missouri -- but apparently only I remember that those two towns are separated by well over 100 miles of driving!

  10. Sharp eyes, Barb! Thanks for filling us in.

    Dale, if 64-page books are priced the same as novels, their pages should be stamped gold leaf. My local library is hooked up to Overdrive.com, so their lending arrangement let’s us download ebooks and audiobooks. I grabbed the latter and returned it an hour later.

    The Grownup starts out with a discussion of sexual experimentation most people abandon by their mid-teens and ends with a bit of ambiguity. Here, Flynn uses a reliable narrator and unreliable characters. Look for interesting literary clues that clever readers might pick up.

  11. I'm with Barb and Melodie on the plot hole(s) of Gone Girl. When you get a really big plot hole, it kills it for me, like the one in "A Simple Plan". And I'm out.

    Re the Christie story - it's probably either "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and/or "Curtain". Both have shady narration.


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