This is a tart read, with sharp characters who reveal their layers slowly. Is it a thriller? Sort of, but even more, it's a biting look at relationships between people who are all too human and fallible. Just go read it, and then come back and we'll talk about it in depth, complete with spoilers.
Go. I'll wait.
Back already? Yeah, it's a really fast read. And one that stings.
The book opens on Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth anniversary. It seems idyllic, but there is something off, something wrong. Nick wakes up to hear Amy downstairs in the kitchen banging around making crepes.
Amy peered at the crepe sizzling in the pan and licked something off her wrist. She looked triumphant, wifely. If I took her in my arms, she would smell of berries and powdered sugar.
When she spied me lurking there in grubby boxers, my hair in full Heat Miser spike, she leaned against the kitchen counter and said, "Well, hello, handsome."
Bile and dread inched up my throat. I thought to myself: Okay, go.
This isn't the first thing we learn about these people, but it's close. They met and married in New York City where they were working as writers in a magazine industry that is now dying. Both lost their jobs, and then Nick's sister called with the news that their mother was dying as well. With the arrogance and impulsivity of youth, Nick announces they are moving back to his small home town in Missouri. He assumes Amy will get used to it and everything will be fine. Two years into the move and it's obvious things are far from "fine." But how far? What is the particular misery of this existence? That's the territory when Flynn plays.
The first half of the book tells the story of basically ordinary misery, with the volume turned up a bit. Nick leaves after breakfast, returns in the middle of the day to find things overturned and his wife missing. Has she fled her unhappy existence? Has she been kidnapped? Murdered? In alternating chapters, we see Nick slowly reveal himself as a less than ideal husband as the investigation begins to focus on him and the most likely culprit of whatever happened. Meanwhile, Amy's story is told in diary entries dating back to the first time she met Nick, moving forward from their days of incandescent happiness in New York to the curdling state of their relationship.
This is writing with an enormous degree of difficulty. In competing first person narratives, we see Amy and Nick present their best selves, making their pleas for understanding, and we can see how they were attracted and how live stresses made those selves impossible to sustain. In Amy's chapters, we see how love can lose its luster, how financial difficulties, family illness, dislocation, unhappiness can create a corrosive drip that undermines a relationship. In Nick's narrative, we see how his desperate need to be likeable leads him into elisions, lies of omission, and active dishonesty as he attempts to cover up the flaws he can't bring himself to confront. Layer after layer peels off, and by the end of the first half, I was convinced that he was selfish enough and fundamentally weak enough that he could have killed his wife in order to avoid disappointing her.
That's when Flynn throws her first major twist. Amy isn't dead, and her diary isn't real. She is angry, as well as brilliant and more than a little bit nuts. She knows about Nick's mistress, a 23 year old college student, and affair that has gone on for well over a year, and she has carefully plotted her revenge. She has carefully stage managed the scene of her "abduction/murder" using everything she knows about Nick and how he will act to tighten the snare around him. Her thoroughness is unnerving--she cut her own inner arm and sat watching herself bleed. She then mopped up the mess, calibrating her cleaning to the precise level she knew Nick would have cleaned, counting on the police to find the blood traces and suspect her husband. The diary was a work of fiction she constructed to make her story look appealing, while making Nick look more and more dangerous. In an annual tradition, she has put together a treasure hunt of clues from their year together, leading to a final gift. This year, the clues are somewhat easier (since Nick is never able to solve her usual clues), but they have double meanings, each one leading to a damning clue for the police to conclude that Nick has murdered her. In important ways, the book is a treasure hunt for the reader as well, as we move from memory to incident, seeing how these two people have failed each other, over and over.
Nick is not as brilliant as Amy, but he does realize that he is being framed, and that Amy isn't dead. Now his story is the race against time--can he find the clues before the police do? Can he convince the cops that Amy isn't dead? During this period, Amy's story is a bit slow--she's hiding in a run-down Ozark resort and the only question is whether she can be patient enough to allow all her traps to spring, or is she going to become impatient and out herself with calls to the police tip line.
It turns out that the answer to that is "neither." She's a little too deeply immersed in her role and gets all her money stolen by two of the other residents. Now she has to come up with another plan on the fly, and she turns to a man who has idolized her for decades. He's conveniently close, he's fabulously wealthy, he adores her. She thinks she can use his adoration to regroup and relaunch. This turns out to be a major miscalculation. Desi squirrels her away in a lakeside mansion, but she's actually a prisoner--she can't operate the security gates, she has no car, no money, only his gentle (and genuinely creepy) insistence that he will give her everything she needs. As the days go by, Desi makes Nick look ideal in comparison. Nick let her do what she wanted. Now she has to come up with a plan for escaping this gilded prison.
Meanwhile, Nick has decided that the only way to save himself from capital punishment is to flush Amy out of hiding. He has started posting videos and interviews of himself saying what he knows Amy wants to hear: I love you, I was wrong, I want to make it up to you, Please come home. We know the extent of his fury at her, how much of an act this is, how making these making these videos makes him want to kill her. Each one increases his fury and hatred, even as we see her falling in love with "this Nick," the Nick she thought she marrying. The Nick who was no more real or sustainable than the Amy she was when they first met, the spontaneous Cool Girl. She comes back dramatically, spectacularly, appearing on the doorstep of their home in front of the camp of paparazzi, bruises and twine ringing her wrists and ankles, bruised, cut and damaged, but alive.
Here is the place where Flynn's storytelling reaches meta heights. Nick knows the narrative that will keep him alive, and so he has to play the stunned and grateful husband, while at the same time he knows that living with Amy is life-threatening. After all, she murdered Desi, cutting his throat and watching him bleed out in order to return. Any time Amy becomes convinced that Nick is insufficiently devoted, she could easily kill him as well. So Nick has to play a devoted husband for the public as well as for Amy, while keeping eternally alert to signs that she is plotting against him again. Meanwhile, Amy sees that Nick doesn't really love her the way he portrayed in the videos, but he comes close enough for her--most of the time.
And then we see the final twist of this twisted book: neither one can really leave the other. They are caught up in the challenge of dominating the other one. Nick realizes that a normal life with a normal girl would quickly become boring--he is increasingly addicted to the challenge that Amy poses. She makes him smarter, faster, she pushes him to do more than he would without her. Sure, it's a dangerous and sick method, but it's something he can't actually give up. So as Amy attempts to remake him into the kind of husband she wants, he's engaged in a counter effort to expose her as a murderess, to get her locked up so he's safe, but he can still engage with her. Physically safe, but mentally challenged. (Not unlike what Desi had already done to her.)
Then Amy outmaneuvers him by becoming pregnant. Now he's trapped by his desire to save his son from her machinations. The two of them a dangerous, toxic mix, each getting just enough from the other to be locked and unwilling to let the other one "win."
This is not a story that will end well, for Nick, Amy, or their yet-unborn child. There will be collateral damage as well--mistresses, family members, neighbors. It's a sickly heightened reality they are constructing for themselves--it's dangerous, it's heady, it's addictive.
Unqualified recommendation from me.