Here’s a one-word review that sums up my reaction to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Crown Publishing, New York, 2012): Wow! I liked the book so much I am inclined to pick it up and read it all over again. Now. If you are looking for a perfect end-of-the-summer read, this is it.
Amy and Nick have been married for five years. Indeed, it is there five year anniversary, when suddenly, Amy disappears. Suspicion turns to foul play quickly enough. Divergent perspectives on the marriage unfold in competing narratives presented in alternative chapters. We read entries from Amy’s diary, showing a marriage unraveling because Nick is an uncommunicative brooder bordering on violence. Nick’s chapters reflect his coping with Amy’s disappearance and the gathering circumstantial evidence that he did her in. Is he really describing the same person who wrote the diary?
Nick is very much like Scott Peterson, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his wife and unborn child in California. Did Flynn study the Peterson case for material in this case? If she did not, then all cases of missing wives really do tend toward the same dismal archetype: study the reaction of the husband, look for signs of marital discord, find the other woman, and then bend every circumstance in favor of a conviction. I forgive Flynn her reliance on a reported case. As a criminal defense lawyer I know a truth most readers do not: Reality is often far more bizarre than fiction. Indeed, I turn to fiction for an orderly presentation of the universe; the practice of law is as chaotic as science fiction.
Midway through the book, Flynn changes perspectives on Amy’s disappearance. The chapters still alternate, presenting the competing points of view of this uniquely unhappy couple. Soon it becomes apparent that although the facts about Amy’s disappearance are simple enough, the meaning given to those facts is a matter of misinterpretation. Lurking beneath the easy narrative created by the press and police as they try to determine what has become of Amy is the primitive stuff of which we are made: rage, the all-consuming need to bend the world to our will and our purposes, the need to believe in a reality less grim than our simple imperative to survive, and the too easy reliance on simple stories, stories that obscure complex and messy realities.
I do not give away too much if I tell you the book is a study in sociopathy. This young couple made vows to one another, vows that define a marriage. Yet what holds them together seems less a commitment to a life in pursuit of common goals. Need binds them. That need is sometimes destructive. Yet they keep on keeping on. They cling to one another the way we cling to life.
What chills about the book is the sense that despite the deceit, the distortions, the lack of any moral sense, the couple differ only in degree, not in kind, from the rest of us. From time to time you wonder whether the action described was a reverie rather than a recollection of an actual event. Flynn has never practiced law, but she knows a lawyer’s truth: We are all capable of just about anything. Her genius is transforming an ordinary marriage into a thing of horror. She does so in small steps, steps you hardly know you are taking until you look back and wonder how you could have missed the obvious signs of things going horribly wrong.
Marriage and life are like that. I am reminded of Soren Kierkegaard’s observation: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."
Gone Girl is must reading for criminal defense lawyers. Consider the first part of the book to be an illustration of the power of circumstantial evidence to deceive. Just because we demand answers to life’s untoward events doesn’t mean that the best answers we can find are true. The narrative drive has, I suspect, convicted many an innocent man.
The second part of Gone Girl is a cautionary tale. What if the conspiracy theorists really are right? How much evidence do we ignore simply because it is inconvenient, or does not make sense? I recall years ago a client insisting that we call the CIA on his behalf. He was an undercover agent, he reported. Not a car thief. He passed his competency hearing with flying colors. When the Defense Department called looking for him we began to wonder just what was going on.
The book’s final part illustrates the truth of a maxim I’ve heard wise lawyers repeat from time to time: "You can lead a client to the courthouse, but you can’t make them think." The claims of reason are overstated. None of us truly live in a universe composed of discrete bargains in the law’s shadows. We are all driven by inchoate imperatives that make reason one tool among many. The choice of irrational means to our destined ends is, by definition, unreasonable; but that does not make the irrational wrong.
I love this book. You should too. Read it once. And, if you are like me, you will want to read it again. I suspect it will be even better the second time.