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What makes a great female character?

Catriona Menzies-Pike
Published: February 15, 2013 - 2:31PM

I read most of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn in the air. It was a short-haul flight and when I got off the plane, I read it in the customs and immigration lines. When I got on the airport bus, I kept on reading as the driver waited for all the seats to fill.

It's that kind of book.

I'm not the only one to have had troubles putting it down. Gone Girl won big plaudits from reviewers when it was published last year. Janet Maslin gave it the thumbs up in The New York Times. It made the Jezebel book club. Reese Witherspoon liked it so much she's turning it into a film.

In brief: Gone Girl is a lurid revenge drama posing as a crime novel. A wildly unpredictable whodunit, it's also an anatomy of a dysfunctional relationship, and, if you're into dark thrills, a mighty fun ride.

The book opens as a baffled Nick Dunne is confronted with the apparently violent disappearance of his wife, the blonde, beautiful Amy. As the cops home in on him as suspect numero uno, he tries to figure out what happened. Nick makes a patchy and self-serving case for his innocence – and seems spookily indifferent to the disappearance of his wife. His narrative is interspersed with Amy's diary entries from when the pair met right up to her disappearance. Suffice it to say, the two versions of the marriage don't match up.

Charming on the surface, Nick and Amy are a mendacious, nasty pair and we twig early on that neither of them can be trusted. Expect surprises: Flynn is quite prepared to mess with her readers. Maslin calls her "spectacularly sneaky" – and she is.

Local reviewer Peter Craven recently described Gone Girl as a book that "combines elements of very high-class chick lit with brashly inventive melodrama". He makes it clear that he is more of a Serious Literary Fiction kinda guy than a regular reader of genre potboilers. Very high class chick lit is presumably not unlike very high class prostitution: suitable for the better type of gentleman reviewer.

Craven liked the book but he endorsed it in a manner that suggested that crime fiction needs to be held at arm's length – just as, good heavens, chick lit should be. Reviewers uncomfortable with popular fiction are a dime a dozen and won't bother Flynn or her fans too much. Still, Craven's snobbery is nonetheless curious in light of Gone Girl's deft, entertaining and very smart reinvention of the conventions of genre fiction.

I'd love to hear what Amy would have to say about it. She's got a mouth on her and I think she'd call out Craven's condescension for what it is. Make no mistake, Amy is a complete pain: she's manipulative, she lies, she gets stroppy if she doesn't get her own way. But that's not the whole story. She's a smart, independently-minded feminist lady too. This much we can work out from her diary – just as we work out that her husband gives her plenty of reasons to act like a ratbag. Amy is the kind of friend you'd keep going drinking with – even though you knew she might eventually cause some strife.

You'd have plenty to talk about over beers. Amy and Nick both lost their jobs in the New York magazine world when the publishing industry started its low slow journey south. Nick, Amy's husband, turned from nice guy into chump somewhere along the way. And her parents, a couple who made their fortune writing a series of children's books based on a character called Amazing Amy, are more than a little creepy. Nick and Amy relocate from NYC to a small town in Missouri where there ain't a lot going on. They're stuck in a soulless house with nothing to do, money problems and little joy.

Amy is not a character from central casting. Flynn allows her to be pissed off in her marriage, disappointed in her career and resentful of her parents. Even as she's not particularly likeable or indeed actually visible, there's much about her that is believable.

This is typical of Flynn's female leads. They have plenty of flaws – and they are vivid and unpredictable. Flynn's plots aren't subtle but she gives her female characters complex back-stories and loud, distinct voices. Camille Preaker, the journalist who narrates Sharp Objects, Flynn's first novel, returns to her hometown to report on what look to be a set of two linked murders. She's reluctantly reunited with her crazy family and bitchy school friends. No great shakes as a journalist, she gets drawn into the murder investigation. For readers, cracking the case is a lot less interesting than finding out more about Camille.

Dark Places, the next addition to the shelf, is built around Libby May, who testified that her brother killed her mother and two sisters when she was seven. The adult Libby is broke – and harbours a few doubts as to whether her brother is guilty or not. When she's offered cash by some weird crime enthusiasts to pursue some leads, she gets involved. Sad, messed-up character that she is, Libby is also wry, brave and cantankerous.

Neither Sharp Objects nor Dark Places is quite as gripping as Gone Girl, but they both pull off lively, immensely interesting female leads. Flynn thinks seriously about what drives these women, a courtesy that the producers of TV crime drama, where cardboard female characters abound, don't pay their audiences.

We are, it's true, seeing more interesting roles for women on TV. Lena Dunham is doing wonders in Girls, and sometime back in the early seasons of True Blood Sookie Stackhouse had a bit more life in her. Still, it's safe to say that the female character boom hasn't hit Law and Order. Detective Olivia Benson is tough but that also might because she's made of some titanium-reinforced fantasy cardboard. (Hold your fire, Hargitay fans.)

Crime fiction has given us plenty of female corpses but Gillian Flynn is going one better and giving us cracking female characters. Sure, they might stab you in the back – but at least they'd have a good reason for doing so.

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