Recent Reads: Gone Girl and Dark Places

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1. Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)

Gone Girl begins with the sudden disappearance of Amy Dunne on her fifth wedding anniversary. Her husband Nick becomes a prime suspect when the local detectives and the small community learn of his financial dependence on her and her well-off parents. Moreover, his stoic appearance and calm composure on camera is interpreted as a clear image of guilt. As the story unfolds, the narration alternates between Amy’s diary entries from the day she meets Nick to Nick’s present-day accounts after his wife’s mysterious disappearance. With each chapter, our sympathy and allegiance shifts between Nick and Amy. What is the truth? But it turns out that the truth is never quite so simple, and nor does it bring us any comfort. The characters are dangerous and deranged, and their behaviour is disturbingly narcissistic and sociopathic. Yet, Flynn manages to allow the reader to feel a strange sense of empathy towards them. Beneath their deep flaws, there is something about their behaviour as a couple that evokes a visceral response – there is an element of raw humanness about it.

I think that by setting the story in a small, dying Midwest town, Flynn appears to give another reason for the deep flaws of the characters. The economy is down and jobs have been lost. Everything has been ‘hollowed out: businesses and investment, the natural environment, and even morals. The ‘wasteland’ in which the characters live in is a place devoid of any real purpose or meaning.

Gone Girl was a very interesting read and even though I usually stay away from the mystery/crime/thriller genre (no, not for any particular reason), I found it very enjoyable. Definitely a page-turner and well worth the hype.

2. Dark Places (Gillian Flynn)

Libby Day, the sole survivor of a horrific family massacre during her childhood, has been playing the role of victim throughout her life. She has lived off the donations made by well-wishers over the years, but as her funds are beginning to dry up, Libby reluctantly accepts an invitation from The Kill Club, a hobbyist group who are obsessed with crimes. The members are convinced in the innocence of her elder brother Ben, and encourage her to gain emotional closure. Their fervent belief in Ben’s innocence leads Libby to question her own testimony – one that provided the damning evidence that sent Ben to prison. Slowly, with the support of the Club, Libby reconnects with people from the past to recreate the events of the night that would change her life forever.

Like Gone Girl, Dark Places relies on different voices, alternating between present-day Libby and the events of 1985 from the main characters. I think that this is probably Flynn’s strongest writing talent – the ability to weave multiple narratives and perspectives together to create multi-faceted characters and a sense of ongoing suspense. Also, in dealing deftly with complex themes such as class, poverty and grief in her writing, Flynn paints an incredibly sympathetic picture of a single-parent family struggling to get by.

Having read Gone Girl first, I must admit that it took me a while to get into Dark Places. I just couldn’t connect with the characters or the setting. Maybe because (if I recall correctly), the fourth wall isn’t broken in Dark Places. However, now that I have finished the two, I think that Dark Places is a little bit better. The social commentary that runs throughout the story and the ending (oh, such a surprise, but so touching) really did it for me.

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Looking forward to the 2014 film adaptations for Gone Girl and Dark Places now! 🙂

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Recent reads: Crazy Rich Asians and Without Reservations

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One of the best things about being on holiday is probably having ample time to tackle that to-read list. And indulge in some light reading. Joyce, Hemingway and Proust can wait, right?

1. Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan)

Yesterday I started and finished Kevin Kwan’s popular debut novel Crazy Rich Asians. It provides a satirical glimpse (and my, what a glimpse!) into the lives of three ultra wealthy Chinese families. In this world, haute couture, chauffeured Rolls Royces, private jets (equipped with state-of-the-art yoga studios) and impromptu getaways to private and secluded islands are part of the everyday. However, beneath the opulent displays of wealth and tradition, we see a world of hypocrisy, competition and vanity.

While laden with stereotypes of those within the Chinese diaspora, Crazy Rich Asians breaks many of the western stereotypes of Asian men and women. None of the characters are sidekicks – they are leaders in their own world, and play by their own game.

I thought this was quite an interesting read. Think Downton Abbey meets Baz Luhrmann. I thought of Downton Abbey when I read of the aristocratic lifestyles of the upper echelon of Chinese society; a hierarchal society that is driven and shaped by tradition, romance, ambition and desire. Maintenance of the status quo is of utmost importance, but only possible with treachery, gossip and dishonesty. At the same time, Crazy Rich Asians is vividly flamboyant in style and content. Its dazzling, over-the-top descriptions of the characters’ lifestyles borders on the unrealistic and it has the glitziness and exploding fireworks (both metaphorically and literally) of Luhrmann’s films.

2. Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman (Alice Steinbach)

I finished reading Without Reservations a few days ago. It has been on the to-read list for a couple of months now, ever since I did some research into good travel fiction/memoirs. Travel fiction/memoir is easily one of my favourite genres – if you don’t have the opportunity to travel right now, the next best thing is to travel vicariously through someone’s writing, right?

Without Reservations is a travelogue of Alice, a divorced fifty-something journalist who spends a few months travelling solo around western Europe. Although she is very much an ‘independent’ woman in our understanding of the word – having always made her own choices and financed her own lifestyle, she chooses to embark on a journey to discover her independent identity – one that is not defined by her role, or the people and things around her.  Alice seeks answers in Paris, Oxford, Florence and Venice, and along the way, falls in love, befriends people of all walks of life, says ‘YES’ to new opportunities and experiences, and develops a deeper understanding of herself.

I really enjoyed her writing. Maybe it’s because of her background as a journalist, but I felt that even though she was writing about herself, her experiences, and her reflections, her voice never came across as too strong or too self-absorbed. We get a good dose of her own musings, but also some simply but beautifully written descriptions of her surroundings and the people she encounters. I think I will reread this in a few years!