Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

This 2012 novel is worth studying. By potential mystery writers. For its structure. For its twists and turns. For its shifts of reader sympathy from one character to another. For its psychological manipulation of two characters who are in major conflict. And for a resolution that resolves that conflict in one way, but perhaps not in another.

This is the story of Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott. The author, however, makes them tools of her structure, rather than normal, sympathetic characters. With the result that, from the moment they are introduced, I was unable to like either one and/or even to identify with either one. For they seemed too clever, too artificial, too sure of themselves. And it soon became clear why. For each is pretending to be what he or she is not. Nick becomes someone else in order to please Amy, and Amy hides her true character in order to turn Nick into a perfect spouse.

To complicate matters, Amy is a spoiled daughter of a famous couple who have written a series of children’s novels that feature a smart little girl named Amy. Meanwhile, Nick leads a pedestrian life. He owns a bar with his twin sister, Margo. And he is an unassuming writer who is ignored by others, except for brief moments when his emotions click on. As they do when he meets Amy. But after their sudden marriage such moments grow infrequent, and the two become a mismatched pair. Not least because they both lie. A lot. They even lie to us.

In any event, when Amy suddenly vanishes on their fifth anniversary, I was little interested in what had happened to her. What interested me was not the fate of either of these characters but what the author was going to do with this situation she had devised. Particularly when everyone suspects that Nick had killed his wife, and Nick discovers that Amy has set him up for exactly that. Indeed, in the guise of the author, she has been setting up the reader as well. For she is not the love-struck woman she has pretended to be in her diary that we have been reading, a wife who is becoming concerned about the conduct of her husband.

No, she is a manipulative woman who, when she discovers that Nick is having an affair, has decided that he is not worthy of her. And as any spoiled brat would do, she seeks revenge. In fact, the author builds this entire novel around her elaborate plot to destroy her husband.

But while the revelation of Nick’s affair is a major plot twist, even greater is the explanation of the seven-year diary that Amy has kept, a diary that suggests Nick has (mis)treated her during their marriage. And when this reader discovered that the story of her diary was not what he had understood it to be, I was ready to throw this book against the nearest wall. But it was such a clever twist, and this novel has become so famous, that I read on. I wanted to see how clever, how manipulative, the novelist herself was going to be.

And I will admit that further twists and turns kept me going. Especially when Nick begins to figure out Amy’s cleverness, and decides he is going to match her manipulative skills. Which prompts him to be deceptive too, to lie, in order to avoid both the media and the police. Now, we are reading about two liars. Two deliberate, desperate liars. And when Amy becomes alerted to her husband’s lying efforts, she ups the ante to counteract his strategy. And so they maneuver back and forth until the end, with cops and reporters and the media hovering nearby, with both of them still trying to control their now dark relationship, and first one, and then the other, getting the advantage over their mate.

In fact, as I approached the end of this novel, I began wondering who was going to come out on top. And would the fact that the author is a woman influence the outcome? In other words, I was still more fascinated by how she was structuring of this novel than by the outcome of the plot. Much less the fate of Nick and Amy themselves.

Tana French sums up this novel accurately when she writes: “Nick and Amy manipulate each other with savage, merciless, and often darkly witty dexterity. This is…about how the happy surface normality and the underlying darkness can become too closely interwoven to separate.” She also calls the novel “wonderful and terrifying,” and with this I do not agree. I could not get close enough to either of these characters to feel the emotional connection that she did.

In sum, this is an intricately crafted mystery novel that features a married couple who are trying to manipulate each other for their own ends. But it is the author who is crafting the greater manipulation. And she does it at the expense of her characters. She does offer intricate psychological observations about the reasons behind their conduct, but these emerge more as tools to explain the conduct she has devised for these characters, rather than as revelations that betray what is truly behind these characters’ devious conduct.

To sum up, I was too turned off by the characterizations of these two people, Amy and Nick, at the start of this novel, to become involved emotionally with them, much less be interested in their fate. And as a result, this work does not prompt me to turn to other novels by this author, as intricately crafted as past and future work may be. (March, 2019)

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The Embezzler, by Louis Auchincloss

This 1966 work is an old-fashioned novel, but is still effective. At least for me. Auchincloss wrote many novels, serious novels, about wealthy Manhattan society, but they were never considered literature on a high level. He was even called a poor man’s Edith Wharton, because they both wrote of the same people. And his era was often hers as well. This author, however, did not claim to be on her level, and was, in fact, more often ranked with John P. Marquand.

But this has to be one of Auchincloss’ better novels. It is about three people: Guy Prime, a handsome, gregarious figure trying to make it in the financial world of New York; Rex Geer, an ambitious young man whom Guy sees has the business skills to complement his own personal skills; and Anglica, who loves them both, sees them objectively, and reveals their weaknesses. Each of them will portray their version of their lives from the turn of the 20th century into the 1960s. Each will also look back with a certain self-justification, and with a conscientious evaluation of one another.

But this novel is more than three character portraits, even as it offers three different ways of evaluating the same people and the same events. Because the three characters do not understand one another as well as they believe they do. And because the author is also interested in what lies beneath the surface of Manhattan’s upper classes: the uncertainties, the self-deceptions, the social climbing, the pretension, the frequent search for money, the self-righteousness and self-deception, an even the back-biting.

The novel begins in 1936 as Guy is caught as an embezzler. He has kept securities that do not rightfully belong to him as collateral for a loan he has received, and he believes the Feds, seeking to expose corruption on Wall Street, have chosen him to put on trial. We see him first through his own eyes, embittered by his trial and sentencing, proud of his business reputation, and unrepentant about his act of embezzlement. The opening section represents this once golden boy of Wall Street writing his memoirs in an attempt to justify himself to the grandchildren he will never see.

But once we are caught up in his dramatic situation, the novel backtracks to how Guy, Rex, and Angelica met, became involved in each other’s lives, and were impacted by Guy’s act of embezlement. It begins with the honest portraits that Guy tries to draw of the three major characters. Which reveals, instead, Guy’s own character, how he assumes he is in good graces with everyone he meets and ends up taking for granted the prestige he feels he has earned. But his success, he realizes, has been aided by the business advice and business contacts that Rex has provided. Which, in turn, prompts a certain resentment of this friend whom he once so identified with.

Rex’s narrative helps us to get to know him better, first with his abortive affair with Alix, who cannot bring herself to marry him. And then with his childhood sweetheart Lucy, who understands him and their situation much better than he does. But the most pertinent observation by Rex is noting that Guy’s biography leaves out what happened between his marriage to Angelica and their divorce 25 years later. This is the period when Guy’s idealism succumbs to frustration at home and at work, then to disillusion, and then to despair, leaving him only his surface reputation.

But even Rex skips the intervening years until the 1930s. This is when he begins horse-riding for exercise; and it comes under Angelica’s tutelage and leads to their affair. His narrative is primarily a story of his three loves, with casual references to his relationship with Guy. Only his final analysis of Guy seems wrong, as he concludes that he has been Guy’s tool, from Harvard to banking to Alix, that Guy used people for his own advancement, and that he used his embezzlement to destroy his world of finance “because he could not dominate it.” And Rex hates him for that, even as he admits it may be childish to do so.

Angelica, on the other hand, reveals other aspects of Guy. That, for example, he worshipped Rex, which is why he wanted him as part of all his endeavors. She also reveals Guy tries to win everyone to his vision, because he realizes he has to overcome his family’s “shabby” reputation. Finally, she says that she loved Guy for only their first ten years together. Then he began affairs geared to advance his career, and he lost her—which left her open to her affair with the man her husband so admired. A final bit of intrigue, she says, is that he used the betrayal of Angelica’s affair with Rex to justify his own embezzlement.

There are aspects of an unreliable narrator here. But the emphasis is on the different interpretations, and what they reveal about each person. It is not on the surprise of the new interpretation. With the result being deeper characterizations for both the observer and the observed. The different viewpoints work because each person seems sincere, both in evaluating their own actions and in their re-interpretation of events that others have described. And most still like and respect the persons they are commenting upon.

And, yes, their different interpretations of how Guy finds himself in each situation, both his business career and his marriage, and how the others view his actions—these lend substance to this tale. But I was more intrigued by the situations themselves, by how each developed, how the emotional relationship among the three principals provided the growing impetus, and how each responded, given the position each had achieved and their personal relationships. Guy has his worldly reputation, Rex his business success, and Angelica emotional commitments followed by betrayal.

This work fulfills my final interest in Auchincloss. Its greatest achievement is the subtle differences with which the three characters see their own reactions to Guy’s personal and financial history. (July, 2018)