Tag Archives: psychological thriller

Book Review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

It’s difficult to review this book without giving away spoilers, but here goes. Gone Girl is a gripping psychological thriller about the after-shocks of a toxic marriage, but it’s much more than that. It’s like a hall of mirrors or a series of optical illusions. Just when you think you have the two main characters figured out, Gillian Flynn delivers a punch to the gut.

Flynn spends the first part of the book meticulously constructing a complex mosaic, then she tears it down and reconstructs it. And then…well I can’t say what happens without revealing spoilers.

The story begins on the morning of the 5th anniversary of Nick Dunne’s marriage to Amy Elliott Dunne. The scene is deceptively normal. Amy is making crepes as Nick enters the kitchen. The only thing off-kilter is the song she is humming: the theme from MASH (suicide is painless). Nick goes off to work. He manages a bar with his twin sister, Margo. The bar was purchased with the remains of Amy’s trust fund. In the middle of the day he receives a call from a neighbor. Someone has apparently broken into their home.

Things happen rapidly from there. Amy is missing. Furniture has been overturned, indicating a struggle. As police begin to investigate, the reader learns some disturbing things about Nick.

Flynn tells the story in alternating point-of-view chapters, first from Nick’s point of view and then from Amy’s, through a diary that dates back seven years. Amy is the daughter of two child psychologists who gained fame with a series of children’s books centered on Amazing Amy, based on their daughter. The real Amy, though, is nothing like her fictional namesake.

Amy meets Nick at a party in New York City, where they both work for magazines. He loses her number, but they meet again seven months later and fall in love. They marry and it seems like a dream marriage, until they both lose their jobs. Amy loans her trust fund money back to her parents after they make a series of bad financial decisions.

The couple is forced to move to Nick’s hometown of North Carthage, Missouri, where Nick’s beloved mother is dying of cancer. They live in a rented McMansion in a half-finished subdivision along the Mississippi River. Amy is unmoored and unhinged. Nick is distant and uncommunicative, traits he despised in his own father.

Like many communities, North Carthage is ravaged by the bad economy. Its economic pillar, a tourist destination shopping mall, sits empty and becomes home to drug dealers and vagrants. The bar in which Nick and his sister invest, called The Bar, seems like the only sensible bet in town.

As events unfold, Flynn cleverly drops bombshells that cause the reader to shift loyalties among the two main characters. It wasn’t until about the halfway point that I figured out where my sympathies truly lied and I can’t say why without giving away key plot points.

I found the main lesson of the story centers on the natural human tendency to develop a persona to please another person. That is what Nick and Amy did and that was their undoing as a couple. It is especially challenging to be true to one’s self in this age of social media, where people can reinvent themselves and create a persona of their liking. This notion is not lost on Nick, who reflects at one point, “It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless automat of characters.”

Gone Girl garnered much hype in the months after its release. I’m skeptical of over-hyped books, but in this case, Gone Girl lives up to the buzz.

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Book Review: “Defending Jacob,” by William Landay

William Landay’s bestselling novel, “Defending Jacob,” is both a legal thriller and a searing portrayal of a family’s anguish as it endures a crisis alone, abandoned by friends and neighbors.

The main character, Andy Barber, is the first assistant district attorney in a tony Boston suburb. He adores his wife, Laurie, and their son, Jacob. He is at the top of his game professionally. As the senior staff attorney reporting to the elected District Attorney, Barber gets his pick of the high-profile cases to prosecute.

When a student is found dead in a leafy park near the high school, Barber takes the case. But this is no ordinary murder. Andy Barber’s comfortable world is turned upside down when Jacob is arrested for the murder of classmate Ben Rifkin.

Landay explores these central questions: do parents really know their children, how far will they go to protect their children, and what happens to the fragile family dynamic when their beliefs about the basic goodness of their children are challenged? He also explores the variables that shape our children, from nurture versus nature to genetic behavioral predispositions.

The 14-year-old Jacob is in many ways a typical teen-ager. He is a puzzle to his parents, an unpopular student in school, and an active user of social media. He has few friends and some classmates view him as weird. He is guarded in his communications with his parents, revealing little about his life.

Andy Barber has a secret of his own. His father and grandfather were murderers. After Jacob’s arrest, he finally reveals his secret to Laurie, fearing the prosecution will use it to demonstrate the existence of a “murder gene” in his son’s DNA.

When the evidence begins to point toward Jacob, the District Attorney takes Andy Barber off the case and he is suspended with pay. Classmates tell police Jacob had a knife and a possible motive, since Ben Rifkin bullied him. And then Jacob’s fingerprint is found on the dead boy’s jacket.

The scenes where the Barbers meet with their attorney and a psychologist hired by the defense are among the most interesting in the book. During these meetings the Barbers learn some harsh, uncomfortable truths about their son. Landay, a former prosecutor, gives the reader an insider’s glimpse of the strategies and tactics of both the prosecution and defense and adds deft insights into the courts and the legal system.

As the trial progresses to its conclusion, a surprising plot twists jar the reader, but it’s the brilliant and shocking ending to this story that leaves the reader both satisfied and unsettled.

Readers who like Scott Turow will enjoy this story, though I found Landay’s characters not as complex as the characters that grace Turow’s novels. Still, this is a suspenseful story and a worthwhile read.

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Book Review: “Before I Go to Sleep,” by S.J. Watson

Our memories define us and connect us emotionally to our friends and loved ones. They form the basis for our past and present, but memory can be a tricky thing.

S.J. Watson’s debut novel, “Before I Go to Sleep,” is a psychological thriller that centers on a middle-aged woman in London. Christine Lucas suffers a traumatic brain injury that leaves her unable to retain long-term memories for more than 24 hours. Each day, Christine’s memories of her life are wiped clean. She awakens in bed next to a man who claims he is her husband, but she has no memory of him or her own life. Each day, her husband, Ben, must re-orient Christine to who she is and the life they have shared. He posts photos in the bathroom and writes helpful messages on a white board.

Christine struggles each day to piece together her life. With the help of a neuropsychologist, Doctor Ed Nash, who mysteriously contacts her, she begins to write in a journal each day. Dr. Nash tells her to read the journal each day to remember key facts about her life. After a time, she discovers her husband is withholding important facts about her life from her. She learns she published a novel and she bore a son, information her husband has withheld from her. She begins not to trust her husband.

The journal is a clever device that allows Watson to slowly unfold a complex, multi-layered plot and parse out to the reader the puzzle pieces of Christine’s life. When the journal suddenly ends seven days short of the point where the story begins, Christine and the reader are left to wonder what happened during that time.

The pacing of the story is one of its strengths. It starts slowly as Watson brings the reader into Christine’s frighteningly confusing head. As the story progresses, the tension and suspense build and the reader begins to doubt those who claim to love Christine. At one point, the reader is left to wonder who can be trusted.  Even the saintly Dr. Nash, who is painted as a model of altruism, becomes suspect in the reader’s mind. Is he working for Ben? Why is Ben lying to Christine about their life together?

One of the most intriguing aspects of this novel is Christine’s internal struggle. At one point, her only desire is to feel normal. “To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next.” She thinks about growing old with no memories to hold onto, no accumulated wisdom to pass along. “What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?”

At another point later on, Christine feels she is going mad. “I wish I knew one thing for certain. One single thing that I have not had to be told, about which I do not need to be reminded.”

After reading her journal one day, she reflects on the fragile state of a life without clear memories. “My life, I thought, is built on quicksand. It shifts from one day to the next…I am desperate for solid ground…” And that is the point here. Our memories, though sometimes faulty and self-serving, define who we are and how we relate to the people around us.

Altered memory can serve as a cheap plot device or an intriguing technique for building suspense, most notably in movies like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the more recent Inception. It takes skill for a writer to use this device effectively. Watson draws on his experience as an audiologist for the National Health Service in Great Britain to create a chilling scenario. Watson, who lives in London, wrote the novel after he was accepted into the first Faber Academy Writing a Novel course.

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