In 2012, Gillian Flynn published her third novel, Gone Girl, and it got a lot of press and was a really big honking deal. So when I accidentally left the house the other day without a book or knitting, and I had some waiting in line to do, Gone Girl was the novel I intended to pick up. But a paperback by the same author was sitting right there, and a paperback is cheaper and fits in your purse, so the decision was purely practical. All the best literature is reasonably priced and portable, right? Plus, whereas Gone Girl is about a marriage, something of which I have little knowledge and no experience, Dark Places is about a girl raised by a single mom in Kansas in the 1980s. I've got some personal stake in that story. And that's why I'm proffering my opinion about 3-year-old Dark Places instead of the newer novel.
I have to admit that I don't know the ins and outs of writing a "legitimate" book review. Maybe I should read a few, eh? But I cannot help but whine about how disappointed I was in Dark Places. The ending was so silly it verged on nonsensical. It's as if Flynn thought up a murder and wrote and wrote and wrote, and suddenly realized she didn't know how to solve it. So she figured out an answer that would fit the situation she had set up for herself--a ridiculous answer, but an answer--and then went back to an earlier chapter to toss in some foreshadowing and called it good.
Which is not to say that I didn't love Dark Places. I absolutely did, and that makes the disappointment all the more potent. That final nonsensical plot point aside, Flynn is a genius writer. Her characters are just like all those assholes you knew in school or at the bar. And they are all assholes to some degree, even the narrator. In other words, they're real people. Libby Day, now in her mid-30s, is on a quest to solve the murders of her mother and two sisters that happened when she was only 7 not because of a sense of duty or honor, but simply for money. She is not compelled to avenge her family; she is compelled to pay the rent. Otherwise, she'd just as soon stay in bed. (Frankly, I can relate to that, too.) A reader tempted to feel sorry for Libby won't feel that way for long. Having made a living on the pity people feel for her, Libby well understands the process of manipulation, but manipulation is not the purpose of Flynn's story. Libby's telling of her own life is straightforward and unflinching. Flynn never gives the reader a chance to indulge in the maudlin pity that a lot of writers wouldn't be able to avoid.
And that's why we love Libby. We know she's a manipulator, a thief of both unconsidered trifles and her supporters' sympathy, but she isn't stealing anything from us. In fact, she's giving us something--entry into her tightly controlled life. We also incidentally get a clear-sighted analysis of the worst possible scenario of 1980s rural poverty, alcoholism and addiction, absentee parenthood, the satanism-molestation panic, and even the farm crisis. Flynn reminds us that the 1980s had problems a lot bigger than mullets and parachute pants.
So even though the ending made me yell "That's so stupid!" I still loved Dark Places. A splendid novel isn't damned because of one flaw anymore than Libby herself is damned because of one horrid night.