Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Amy and Nick were the perfect couple, beautiful former New York writers, about to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, when the world falls apart and Amy disappears in Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller – Gone Girl.

Flynn begins the story as a romance – a marriage with some problems. Amy and Nick have moved to Nick’s boyhood home in Missouri after the recession hit and Nick lost his job. Using what’s left of Amy’s trust-fund – from her parents’ popular children’s books series “Amazing Amy” loosely based on Amy’s life –  he opens a bar with his twin sister in a town far away from the East Coast buzz. As the chapters alternate between Nick’s eye-witness account, starting with the day Amy is found missing, and Amy’s journal – backtracking to the day they met – Flynn lulls the reader into what seems to be an innocuous crime story of a missing wife. It doesn’t take long to realize that neither Amy nor Nick are who they seem to be, and that their marriage is no longer an ideal relationship. Both are lying; both have secrets. Flynn dangles the lies and contrives an intricate pattern of malevolence.

When you find out who is telling the bigger lies, the action becomes riveting. Under suspicion for killing his wife (the husband is always the first suspect), Nick faces the wrath of his in-laws, his hometown, and the general public (courtesy of TV talk shows).  Flynn adds a treasure hunt with incriminating letters and Amy’s multiple choice life options (a reference to her former job creating Sunday supplement psychological quizzes) to fuel the action with sociopathic twists and psychological drama.

Then, the story turns – into a fractured “The Talented Mr. Ripley” theme.   The ending is not satisfying; it was creepy and full of malice.  The possibilities that Flynn creates for the future include a morose cliffhanger that would be better left unresolved… a tantalizing study of amorality in characters whom anyone would avoid, if they only knew the truth.

40 Love

Madeleine Wickham, aka Sophie Kinsella, is always good for a quick pick-me-up.  Her droll British upstairs/downstairs humor is in good form in 40 Love.  Aptly named, this quick read has 4 couples close to the end of their game.

The four couples meet for a tennis weekend at the nouveau riche estate of Patrick and Caroline, who can never seem to have enough money.  Stephen and Annie are old friends from the good old days before they had money, and Charles and Cressida are old money (at least she is).  Thrown into the mix are Don and his daughter, Valerie, so competitive they will cheat to win.  Love and relationships are the theme; Ella, Charles’s first love, makes a surprise appearance – and the comedy of manners is on.

Whether you read Wickham for a taste of British fun and droll wit, or appreciate her well-hidden sarcasm, 40 Love, recently reissued in the United States, follows the Kinsella/Wickham formula.  And they all get what they deserve in the end.

For more Kinsella/Wickham, see the reviews here

Birthdays on September 20th

If today is your birthday, you share it with:

  • Upton Sinclair – The Jungle was written in 1906 (95 years before Fast Food Nation made us want to stop eating meat).
  • Dr. Joyce Brothers – Before Dr. Phil, Dr. Brothers was on TV advising on “love, marriage, sex, and child-rearing.”  She wrote The Practical Plan for Liking Yourself Better and Widowed, a guide to dealing with grief based on her own experience.
  • Sophia Loren – The Italian beauty tells her secrets and gives advice in Women and Beauty.
  • Anne Meara – Jerry Stiller wrote a book about the other half of the famous comedy team – his wife and mother of Ben  – Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara.
                 

Private Life

Who ever knows what goes on inside a marriage?  Sometimes, the partners themselves may be unsure of each other’s motivation and inner fears.  In Private Life, Jane Smiley examines the life of Margaret Early, while chronicling the history she lives through from 1883 to 1942 – from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition to the San Francisco earthquake and fire, influenza epidemics, and finally to World War II.    Despite the influence of the historical context that Smiley uses to showcase Margaret’s life, Margaret is locked in a marriage in which “their lives were mostly private…lived side by side as necessary…”

Their mothers conspire to connect 27 year-old Margaret, approaching spinsterhood, with Andrew Early, the 38 year-old socially dysfunctional eccentric scientist, who may not be as brilliant as he thinks he is; compatibility is not an issue – “part of the price to be paid.”   Margaret does not know what she has gotten into, but Smiley slowly unravels the truth for her as she follows the marriage through a number of crises.

Margaret never seems to be able to release her emotions or follow her own instincts.  At a young age, she witnessed a hanging, and her repressed feelings about the incident seem to set the tone for the rest of her life.  Her role models: a mother who has lost her sixteen year old son to the measles brought home from her husband’s patients, and her father, who kills himself after his son’s death.  She watches and waits to see what is expected, and then tries to deliver.  After a while, this wears away whoever she ever really was or could be.

In Andrew, Smiley draws the picture of the brilliant would-be academic who never quite makes it in the world.  He takes shortcuts, entitled by his view of himself as a genius.  His ideas are suspect because he cannot forego his arrogance, and he ruins his chances for collaboration and possible recognition by belittling his colleagues.  Eventually, he carries his bravado beyond acceptable boundaries, and involves Margaret.

I lost patience with Andrew far before Margaret did.  Thankfully, Smiley offers other characters to counter the heaviness of Margaret’s life – Pete, Dora, Lucy, Mrs. Kimura. They weave in and out of the story, offering a respite to life with Andrew.

Margaret continues living her life through Andrew, typing his manuscripts, driving him around, tolerating him…

“It was peculiarly painful all of a sudden to know that her friends and relatives valued her life not for anything she had done, but for what she had put up with.  It was like being told she was a dolt… And, of course, there was no help for it…that’s what knitting groups and sewing groups {and book groups} were for, wasn’t it? Commiserating about marriage…”

I wondered how long Margaret could remain in this “relentless” marriage.  Finally, she gets a “headache” and excuses herself from Andrew’s excursions, and quietly steals some time and pleasure for herself, but she still stays with him.

More of the world rolls by – the Depression, the war – and as Andrew settles into his seventies, Smiley provides some funny observations about what happens to genius men as they age: Andrew joins Margaret’s women’s card-playing group on Mondays, takes his dog to the movies, and continues to assail anyone he can with his delusional theories as he takes his daily constitutionals.  Unfortunately, he also writes letters, and one day, Margaret has a visit from the FBI – government agencies, at least Hoover’s men, were not known for their sense of humor.

Smiley uses Margaret’s lack of “daring” to think for herself and live her own life as a cautionary tale.  Although Margaret thinks only her life is affected by her dutiful silence, she does not account for how, left alone to his own devices, her husband can be dangerous.

“I should have stopped you…”

As the story ends, you can only hope Margaret will finally get on with her own life.

Reading a Jane Smiley novel is an exercise in perseverance. Like a professor who knows too much and cannot always get the basics across to her disinterested students, Smiley offers too much information, background, and emotional baggage to digest.  But all that stuffing is necessary not only to understand the characters, but also to connect with them.

Private Lives is a difficult read, but offers a wealth of possibilities for a book discussion, as long as the book group stays with the book and does not digress to Smiley’s definition of “commiseration” as the purpose of the gathering.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

A complicated psychological thriller, and at the same time, a case study for marriage counselors, Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut connects murder and three marriages through the lens of an Escher work of art – drawing you in many directions at once, with perception and understanding just out of reach.

The story begins with David Peppin wishing that his wife, Alice, were dead; at first, he imagines acts of god – struck by lightning, falling off a cliff – then, he imagines his own rage killing her.  Behind closed doors, their marriage is festering with pain.  Alice, a former teacher, has become morbidly obese – Ross eventually reveals the reason behind this; David hides in the labyrinth of creating new products for his successful video game company.  Escher’s art lines the walls of their home – inspiration for David’s games, and a Cassandra prediction for the marriage.

Wishes come true, and Alice, is found dead of anaphylactic shock at the kitchen table, an allergic reaction to the peanuts on her breath.  Did her husband do it?Two detectives, Ward Hastroll  and Dr. Sam Sheppard, embroiled in their own dysfunctional marital dramas – are called in to investigate, and Ross begins an intricate weaving of lives, stories, and relationships with lots of twists and turns.  And  the “peanut” has more than one meaning.

This is a long book, with lots of detours along the way: Ross’s elaborate description of the Peppins’ difficult hike up Kauai’s Na Pali coast, and the insertion of the character Sam Shepperd, who is now a detective on the Peppin case.  This is the same infamous Shepperd who was convicted, sent to prison, and then freed and immortalized in The Fugitive (remember the endless pursuit of the doctor who insisted he had not killed his wife?).

In a flashback to Peppin’s college days, Ross offers an analysis of Alfred Hitchcock – the man, his movies, his obsession with blond heroines and food – making reference to the one of Hitchcock’s important film-making vehicles – “the MacGuffin”…

“…this is what gets the story rolling but then fades in importance after it’s introduced.  Take 39 Steps.  The hero, Hannay, meets a woman at a local London music hall who claims to be a spy hunted by assassins.  They’re after her, she says, because she’s discovered a plot to steal British military secrets and something called, of course, the 39 Steps.  She’s murdered that night in Hannay’s apartment, so he’s got to prove his innocence while racing all over Scotland and London trying to figure out the secret, which naturally has nothing to do with what the movie’s about. What it’s about is the hero and heroine’s struggle to trust each other.  Which is the beauty of the MacGuffin, because once you learn what it is you can immediately get busy ignoring it.”

Eventually, Ross returns to the whodunit  – who killed Alice Peppin?  David Peppin has been trying to write a novel about his marriage throughout the story, with difficulty finding an ending.  Remember the MacGuffin.  Ross complicates the plot with entertaining distractions, which seem to not have much to do with the plot, but he also cleverly inserts references that lead back to his real story – the theme of love and marriage as the simultaneous states of comfort, ecstasy, and hate. 

In a surprising finish, Ross will make you question everything you read – once you get it.  When I realized what Ross had done, I had an “aha” moment.

 

If you like neat mysteries, with a few red herrings, that ultimately follow the trail to uncover the murderer, Mr. Peanut is not for you.  But – if you like to get lost in a story that keeps you guessing,  and makes you want to read it again to see what you missed – Ross will involve you with his wit and exhausting allusions.