What makes a great female character?

Date

Catriona Menzies-Pike

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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.

Gillian Flynn's <i>Gone Girl</i>.

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.

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.

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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.

Author Gillian Flynn.

Author Gillian Flynn.

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.

10 comments so far

  • Could not put it down! Haven't been so absorbed in a novel for a long time. Also thought Nick's sister Go was an interesting character.

    Commenter
    Melissa P
    Date and time
    February 15, 2013, 9:35AM
    • It is a definite "can't put down" book.
      Fabulous characters.
      Had to stop reading your article in case there were any spoilers !

      Commenter
      Jane
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 15, 2013, 10:18AM
      • sorry, but I beg to differ... having a lifetime philosopy of 'don't start a book that you're not going to finish', I did finish it, but found it to be far-fetched and badly written...it was a chore to complete and would never recommend to friends - my jaw was aching from sheer frustration @ plot lines and characters...I, for one, will not be purchasing any further of Flynns books...but also remember, this is just one person's opinion.

        Commenter
        JAS
        Location
        ACT
        Date and time
        February 15, 2013, 11:23AM
        • AGREE!! Terrible book; poorly written. I would never read another one of her books!

          Commenter
          Gale
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          February 15, 2013, 1:55PM
      • "Reviewers uncomfortable with popular fiction are a dime a dozen." It's not that reviewers are uncomfortable with it, it's just that they read a great deal and are very familiar with more subtly nuanced work. Film reviewers are going to rave about Bergman films but will still go and enjoy a blockbuster.

        Peter Craven gave this book a really positive review. Your presumption that he thinks of very high-class chick lit in the same vein as very high-class prostitution smacks of paranoia. Similarly with the crime genre. There are exceptions (Crime and Punishment being a famous one) but most crime fiction has fairly limited character development with the protagonist harbouring maybe one or two conflicting internal issues and that's about it. Which is fine - these are plot-driven page-turners. Don't get your nose out of joint because someone calls them out for what they are. Wishing 'Amy' could defend the book is like wishing Batman could beat up David Stratton for not giving "Dark Knight Rises" five stars.

        Commenter
        Laki
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        February 15, 2013, 11:30AM
        • You haven't read a lot of good books if you couldn't put down this overrated marketing sensation.

          Commenter
          Alix
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          February 15, 2013, 11:33AM
          • I agree with your sentiment Alix, but I'm not sure you can equate "good books" with "hard to put down". Once I start on a fast food burger I have to finish it, even though it's not great food. Mmmm ... all that salty fatty badness.

            My general comment is that we live in the era of the anti-elitist. "What, you haven't read Dragon Tattoo / Potter / Da Vinci Code / 50 Shades / Eat Pray Love???" from people who haven't read Wallace / Proust / Laxness / Joyce. It reminds me of those two tradies eating a pie outside the fancy restaurant looking in at a couple of businessmen eating "fancy food". One of the tradies comes out with "They don't know what they're missing!!" Yeah, well they're missing 50 grams of salt and the minced up digestive system of a cow.

            Commenter
            Laki
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            February 15, 2013, 1:46PM
        • *SPOILER ALERT*

          I couldn't put it down, but there was definitely an element of hate-reading going on. I agree that Amy is a more complex character than you might normally find in a book, but I completely disagree that she's someone you'd continue to drink with - she's a certified sociopath who has no compunction about ruining (and even ending) people's lives to get what she wants.

          I also had massive problems with the confused narrative about misogyny. Flynn made some interesting points about marriage and sexual interactions, but I felt like she undermined them by reinforcing stereotypes about young mistresses, 'ugly' women, defenders-of-women (such as with the TV host) and so forth. The fact that Amy twice frames men for rape was hugely problematic for me as a reader. And Nick was a total loser who was still ultimately framed as a victim.

          My verdict: Dirty heroin literature that was impossible to put down but left me feeling disappointed in my self control issues. Not as bad as Twilight.

          Commenter
          Clementine Ford
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          February 15, 2013, 1:07PM
          • HATED this book! So boring, predictable and nothing in the book that was original. I couldn't wait to finish the damn thing so I could spend my time reading something worthwhile.

            Commenter
            Abi
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            February 15, 2013, 1:53PM
            • Best thing on this page appears to be the link to hottest 31 sportswomen in bikinis - side by side with the link 'how to call out sexism'.

              Ladies - my hat is off to you! Truly a broad church.

              Commenter
              dr strangelove
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              February 15, 2013, 3:53PM

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