I'd been wanting to read this book for a while, partly because it was so well reviewed and partly because its author is from KCMO and I hoped to poreI'd been wanting to read this book for a while, partly because it was so well reviewed and partly because its author is from KCMO and I hoped to pore through the book hunting for little hometown details like Easter eggs.
I didn't really get to do that, since the book is not set in KCMO but in Carthage, Missouri, where I've never been. It did have kind of a homey feel, though, in the way the characters spoke and other things too nebulous for me to pin down.
In any case, I quickly became so absorbed in the story itself that I largely forgot my metatextual Easter egg hunt.
I had already seen the movie, so I knew everything that was going to happen, but that didn't matter. Gillian Flynn is such a master of suspense that you are excited and worried for the characters even when you know what's coming.
I'm trying to keep this review spoiler-free, so I'm going to try not to talk about the plot.
(I know I've just said that my own enjoyment of the book was not dampened by my having had the entire plot spoiled for me, but I'm still going to try to keep the experience pristine for the benefit of any readers of this review who haven't already read it, or seen the movie, themselves.)
Plot, characterization and mood are this novel's greatest strengths. The story is told in short chapters, alternating between the two main characters -- the protagonist, Nick Dunne, and the title character, Amy Elliott Dunne -- in point of view.
Nick narrates in the moment, describing what happens as he comes home from a visit to the bar he co-owns with his twin sister to find his house in disarray and his wife missing.
Amy's narration is retrospective, given in the form of diary entries starting when she met Nick almost six years prior to the events of the novel. She gives us a long, tantalizing look at the relationship she had with Nick, which is ... "troubled" is putting it kindly.
Nick and Amy each have their own, distinctive voices -- you could probably correctly identify the speaker of each chapter even if all the names and chapter titles were blacked out. Nick is kind of a scatterbrain, and his narration is very reactive; lots of things take him by surprise. He also thinks a lot more about other people than Amy does; he cares very much what people think of him, and when the police are asking him questions about his wife's disappearance, trying to figure out if he had anything to do with it, his awareness of genre conventions wars with his inherent willingness to trust people, to cooperate, to play ball. He knows what a good cop act is, and he knows when one or another of the detectives is using it on him, but underneath that awareness he really, really wants to think they're on his side and trying to help him.
Amy is not a scatterbrain, nor is she very easily taken by surprise. You can tell she's used to being very much in control of her life, and in her relationships. She asserts things authoritatively, and when she makes a prediction she gives it the weight of prophecy. What's more, her chapters are very writerly -- much more so than Nick's, despite the fact that both characters are writers by profession. (Actually, if anything, it was Nick who had the more serious writing career -- he had written articles about pop culture for a magazine, while Amy had written those personality and relationship quizzes you sometimes see in women's magazines.) But it is Amy whose writing is clearly working for her, laying groundwork, subtly leading the reader by the nose. Her diary reads curiously like a soliloquy, a lengthy, formal speech that a dramatic character gives directly to the audience -- a dramatic convention more than a naturalistic representation of how people talk to themselves.
There are several very good reasons for this, but I can only tell you one of them (spoilers be lurking in the others): Amy has grown up in the shadow of her parents' phenomenally popular series of children's books about a heroine transparently based on her -- "Amazing Amy." Amazing Amy is a heavily idealized version of Amy; even as a child, Amy knew what it meant when her fictional counterpart diverged from her actual self. Amazing Amy was who her parents wanted her to be, who she learned at an early age to pretend to be.
The pages of her diary are full of ironic references to Amazing Amy.
Pretending to be someone you're not is a very important theme of this book -- the most famous passage from it, that you've probably seen quoted even if you haven't read the book, is the "Cool Girl" monologue. I will quote it in full here:
That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don't they? She's a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she's hosting the world's biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don't mind, I'm the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they're fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men -- friends, coworkers, strangers -- giddy over these awful pretender women, and I'd want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who'd like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I'd want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn't really love chili dogs that much -- no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They're not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they're pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you're not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn't want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version -- maybe he's a vegetarian, so his Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he's a hipster artist, so his Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing that he likes and doesn't ever complain. (How do you know you're not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: "I like strong women." If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because "I like strong women" is code for "I hate strong women.")
I waited patiently -- years -- for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we'd say, Yeah, he's a Cool Guy.
But it never happened. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl. Men believed she existed -- she wasn't just a dreamgirl one in a million. Every girl was supposed to be this girl, and if you weren't, then there was something wrong with you.
I feel like this monologue deserved to be enshrined next to other righteously angry, bitter monologues by fictional women catching their first whiffs of sexism or the sexual double standard. Val in The Women's Room, ranting about how every man is really a rapist at heart, Joanna in The Female Man cynically narrating the ritualized dance of male dominance and female submission as manifested in small talk at a cocktail party ... given time I could probably come up with a whole reading list, piece together a whole consciousness-raising group session made up of these monologues. Most of the characters who speak these lines would probably get along great with each other, but not Amy Elliott Dunne. She'd have nothing but contempt for the other women speaking, she'd see them as failed women with whom she could not possibly have anything in common. (She's like Cersei Lannister in that way, though I doubt she and Cersei would get along either. Each would probably think the other a bitch.)
Well, that was quite a tangent.
To get back on track: it's not only in Amy's chapters that themes of sexual politics come up; they are also frequently alluded to by Nick, often in the person of Nick's virulently woman-hating father, whom Nick hates. He hates him and at his darkest moments he worries that he might have the potential to become him. He is acutely aware of his own disproportionate anger whenever a woman challenges him or thwarts him, though he (almost) always manages to keep it contained. He knows he has this character flaw, he works hard not to act on it, but he cannot eradicate it. His father made too deep an impression on him for that.
The characterization in this book, as you can see, is incredibly deft and subtle. These characters feel very real, and we are granted such access to their innermost thoughts, fears and desires as we are seldom -- if ever -- given by any friend or lover.
Flynn spends the most time developing Nick and Amy, but there are other characters who caught my attention, too. Nick's twin sister Go would be at the top of that list; she's an incredibly compelling and sympathetic character whom we pretty much only see through Nick's eyes. (Amy has never had much use for her. Early on she dismisses her with the line "She's very ... Missouri.")
Go was just as deeply affected by her and Nick's father's misogyny as Nick was, and I would have loved to see more of that dynamic. I understand why Flynn doesn't give it to us -- to give the level of detail I'd want, she would've had to write from Go's perspective, which would have broken up the nifty he-said-she-said structure of the novel -- but I still found myself wanting more of her.
Case in point: when Nick is telling us how their father affected him and Go, he says two things: One, where Nick became excessively eager to please, Go became closed-off and defiant; and two, "Go will probably never get married." A simple sentence, but one I wanted very much to know the story behind it....more
The thing I liked most about this book was its conception of what a modern-day Amazon society would be like: in some ways, Lori Devoti's vision makesThe thing I liked most about this book was its conception of what a modern-day Amazon society would be like: in some ways, Lori Devoti's vision makes a lot of sense to me, but other choices she made were very surprising.
The book is set in the modern USA, in Wisconsin, but with one major difference: Amazons are real, and they've been living undetected among "mundane" humans for about 2,000 years. For the most part, they live nomadically, moving between Amazon encampments scattered across the country and only mixing with regular people to conceive children. (This setup reminded me of about equal parts The Gate to Women's Country and the Harry Potter series).
These Amazons aren't all warriors, though: they have four castes, each specializing in different things. Most Amazons are warriors, gifted with strength and speed beyond what even an elite human athlete possesses and trained in the use of sword and spear, but there are also priestesses, who can do magic using the four elements; artisans, who learn the craft of tattooing and give each Amazon the two tattoos that mark her tribal membership and augment her powers; and hearthkeepers, who are domestics. They cook, clean, take care of children and basically keep the whole society alive and functioning from day to day. They are held in contempt by the other three castes, which strikes me as very odd, and weirdly sexist.
One of their number --- the book's protagonist, Melanippe Saka --- has left that world to join mainstream society. She owns a tattoo parlor, and lives with her mother, daughter and grandmother. She left the Amazons because she was pregnant with a son: Amazon tradition dictated that she had to give up this son, but she wanted to keep him. She lost the son, and held an elder Amazon in her tribe, a priestess, responsible for that loss.
The plot of this book is a murder mystery: ten years into her voluntary exile, Melanippe starts finding the bodies of girls who've been murdered, and whose tattoos mark them as Amazons. She tries to avoid getting involved, but of course she can't (there'd be no story otherwise) and soon enough she's forced to confront her old enmities and work with the women she walked away from ten years ago to stop this new danger that threatens all of them. ...more
I probably would have liked this book a lot more if it had been shorter. Particularly, the first 300 or so pages could probably have been condensed inI probably would have liked this book a lot more if it had been shorter. Particularly, the first 300 or so pages could probably have been condensed into, say, 20.
It wasn't just that Special Topics in Calamity Physics was overwritten --- which it was, don't get me wrong --- it was also that the actual PLOT didn't get off the ground until over halfway through the book. Until that point, we're inundated with the heroine's experiences trying to ingratiate herself with a particularly glamorous clique at school, and with the strain her newfound social life is putting on her relationship with her father. That's not the most original of subject matter, and Pessl's characters are not compelling or well-drawn enough to imbue it with any special interest.
Also, even though I liked Blue, and the postmodern, allusion- and random-digression-heavy narrative style generally worked for me, her compulsion to give every character, and every character's every mannerism, a cutesy name got annoying really fast. Her need to Capitalize random words with what's clearly meant to be Self-Conscious Irony also annoyed me. Indeed, the postmodern style in general tended to put a lot of distance between me and the characters; Blue and Hannah and Gareth, and --- even more so --- the other students and teachers at St. Gallway. The latter group of characters seemed particularly flat and cartoonish, since I was seeing them through Blue's filter of mockery and exaggeration, without any of the mitigating effects of her interest and sympathy, which serve to give somewhat more nuanced portraits of her father and Hannah.
The review in the New York Times Book Review, which made me want to read this book in the first place, compared Pessl's writing favorably with Vladimir Nabokov's. I've found that to be a huge overstatement.
If I might embark on an Author Analogy of my own, Nabokov is to champagne as Pessl is to Mountain Dew....more
Hilarious and unforgettable. The narrator of this book, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette's syndrome, which allows Lethem to play with language in interestiHilarious and unforgettable. The narrator of this book, Lionel Essrog, has Tourette's syndrome, which allows Lethem to play with language in interesting ways as Lionel tics, rants and rambles his way through the story.
Even though Lionel and his wacky utterances are the most eye-catching part of the novel, they're not all there is to it. There's a solid emotional center to the novel that makes itself felt as Lionel sets about investigating the murder of his much-loved employer, a minor Mafia operative who is the first (and only) person to value Lionel, in however limited a capacity. Fierce loyalty and guilt drive Lionel to find out who killed him, and his investigation reveals things about his boss that he never knew, and drives home to Lionel how little he knew the man....more