Monday, July 30, 2012
Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn
I had heard good things about this book before Gone Girl came roaring out of the chute. After devouring that book, I picked this one up too.
Not as good as Gone Girl, but nicely astringent and a solid fast read.
Camille Preasker is a middling reporter on a fourth rate newspaper in Chicago, not quite living up to her potential when news of two sensational murders in her small Missouri hometown comes across the wires. Her editor sends her off, hoping to inspire her to the greatness he believes her capable of, and boosting the paper's reputation as well. The murders--two thirteen year old girls, killed about a year apart, and all their teeth pulled out. To secure her future, Camille has to return to her past.
It's a nasty place, Wind Gap, Missouri, in the boot heel of the state, full of generations of nasty cliquey girls who grow up to be nasty, cliquey women, travelling the same roads as their mothers had. Really, there are hardly any men in this story at all--it's like a cross between Mean Girls and the ABC Family show "Bunheads" with murder thrown in.
Flynn is a taut writer, and she doesn't tip her hand too early generally. We learn that Camille has a distant relationship with her mother, but we experience the odd formality between them before Flynn gives us the downlow. We are gently teased with hints of the family pathology--just who is this "Marian" that appears in a photo with a young Camille? What is the story with her father? What is going on in this town and this family?
There is a little flabbiness--the town sheriff mostly disappears after having been introduced and doesn't seem to be very engaged in solving these murders. There is a detective on loan from Kansas City who becomes a love interest, but the attraction between them is not really well developed to the point that when Camille accuses him of using her to get information you can't help but think "Well, duh!" And also, "I'm rubber, you're glue." Because really, there was no softer feeling between them--they drank hard together, tried to get information without giving to much away, and had sex. Pretty much equal opportunity opportunism.
Slowly, Camille reacclimates to the town, and as she does, she loses her precarious confidence, sliding back into her childhood role at home and by the end, basically doing whatever she is asked in hopes of being loved and accepted by her mother and half sister. And so we see her move from simply writing words on her arm, to having to actively resist cutting, to hacking at the last bit of unmarked skin (other than her face). She wrestles with unresolved grief over the death of her sister Marian two decades before, with meeting her much younger half sister (born after Camille moved away to college) and developing a relationship with her. Flynn takes her time, showing the rampant alcohol, drug, and sexual abuse that everybody seems to engage in to deal with the overwhelming dreariness of small town life.
Meanwhile, the murder investigation takes place mostly off-stage: Camille isn't tasked with solving the case, just with finding stories to report. It's a decent solution to the "amateur detective" problem, which is that police don't tend to allow just anyone to meddle in an investigation--because they have to preserve the integrity of the evidence in order to get a conviction. (Most mystery novels are concerned with just solving the puzzle of whodunit--police actually have to know the "truth" and be able to prove it up in court.) So Camille wanders around town, talks to different people, giving us a view into the hierarchies that get established in middle school and play out the rest of these people's lives.
In the end, we see the madness that dominates Camille's mother--it's Munchausen's by Proxy, the systematic infliction of illness of a child so the mother can look like a saint and benefit from the attendant approbation and attention. Of course, Camille's mother is a textbook case of it, and that's what killed Marian. Adora (the mother) is also arrested for the murders of the two girls, and Camille takes her young half sister Amma back to Chicago with her.
There is a brief coda in Chicago that really could have been fleshed out more, and would have been in something that was attempting to be more literary than this book, where Camille has to confront her own potential for repeating her mother's pathology. Amma gets sick, and Camille wages an internal battle over whether to give the girl aspirin for her fever. Is there an unhealthy joy she is experiencing from being able to take care of this girl? Amma makes a friend in her new school, but that friendship quickly sours and Amma starts remaining in her room when Lily comes around. Then Lily is found dead, six teeth missing, shoved in a space similar to that of the second girl back in Wind Gap.
That's right--Amma killed those two girls with her clique of three precocious blonde minions. There were a lot of hints that it must have been Adora, which is obviously not the answer, since this is a novel and so there has to be a twist. The teeth? Amma had a dollhouse that was designed to be an exact replica of Adora's house, and Adora's bedroom had an ancient and rare ivory floor--Amma used the teeth to replicate the tile in the corresponding room of the dollhouse.
This last twist was fast and sharp, but not entirely satisfying because it was presented as an epilogue, including the confessions of the other three girls. In contrast, the last section of Gone Girl was the most harrowing--after all the twists, Flynn spent time exploring the emotional resonances in the aftermath of her characters' sociopathy. That would have been the Real Meat of this book as well--after Camille comes to the realization of just how messed up her own childhood was, she has to untangle Amma's culpability and her own feelings about it as Amma's deeds come to light.
So--definitely a fun read, and an exciting debut, but not the sure-footed work that Gone Girl is. If you only have time for one Gillian Flynn book--read that one.