clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Gone Girl,’ Still Here

Ten years to the month that Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’ was first published, the novel still looms over contemporary literature and the broader publishing industry

Ringer illustration

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, published 10 years ago this month, transfigured the literary world. Told in alternating points of view, the novel chronicles the relationship between Amy and Nick Dunne, a successful 30-something couple whose marriage begins to deteriorate after they relocate from New York to Missouri. Nick, now teaching at a local college after losing his job in the Great Recession, begins an affair with one of his students; Flynn also reveals that he is a generally neglectful and disengaged husband. Midway through the book, Flynn employs what has since become known as the “Gone Girl twist”: Amy stages her own disappearance and plans to fake her death and frame Nick for it as retaliation for his indiscretions. A divorce probably would have sufficed.

Walk through any bookstore today and Gone Girl still has pride of place on the shelf, along with a legion of imitations, perhaps most notably Paula Hawkins’s similarly successful The Girl on the Train. Gone Girl spawned a critically acclaimed film adaptation, directed by David Fincher and starring Rosamund Pike as the titular gone girl and Ben Affleck as the hapless Nick. It made an impressive $369 million at the box office worldwide. It also made space in the marketplace for a host of female-oriented domestic thrillers, like last year’s Amy Adams–starring The Woman in the Window, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “the Gone Girl effect.” It’s now reached satire status, with Netflix’s The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window, which parodies Gone Girl and its ilk. What’s more, Flynn introduced the concept of the “cool girl” and sparked conversations about female characters that still continue, while opening the floodgates for crime thrillers by, for, and about women.

Gone Girl debuted on the New York Times bestseller list at no. 2, spending 91 weeks on the chart and going on to sell more than 20 million copies. The book almost certainly played a major role in the contemporary influx of published novels with the word “girl” in the title, perhaps kick-started by Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which was translated into English and published in the U.S. in 2008. From June 2012 to April 30 of this year, 680 “girl” books have been published for a total U.S. MSRP value of nearly $240 million, according to data provided to The Ringer by NPD BookScan (U.S. print sales only). Gone Girl is the head of the pack with—you guessed it—The Girl on the Train next in line.

While Gone Girl had a measurable influence on the publishing industry, its footprint can also be felt in more thematic ways. One of the biggest discussions to come from Gone Girl centers on the notion of the “unlikable female character.” Certainly, literature and pop culture has been filled with unlikable female characters since time immemorial. But there was something about the cultural touchstone of Gone Girl that really hit a nerve in the age of modern feminism.

20th Century Studios

“What I was finding was a lot of books that I didn’t necessarily always want to read,” Flynn told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019. (Flynn declined to be interviewed for this piece.) “I thought, you know, in a way there’s an inequality here that men are allowed to be all these things. Male characters can be good. They can be nasty. They’re interesting [in] both ways and it really pissed me off. It really felt like women were being kept in these particular types of pretty boxes.”

Layne Fargo agrees. Fargo is the author of the thrillers Temper and They Never Learn and cohosts the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters, which was inspired by Gone Girl. (“It’s like the formative text … as far as the podcast is concerned!” she says.) “Ten years ago, [Flynn’s embrace of Amy’s unlikability] was really groundbreaking in terms of what was happening in mysteries and thrillers at the time. It was the first time I had encountered that, and I loved it. I really think she gave permission for female writers to do that because it was so massively successful. She changed the entire genre,” Fargo says.

Perhaps more than the unlikable female character, Gone Girl utilizes the unreliable female character, or narrator, which can be easier to detect than the vague, subjective traits of a seemingly distasteful female protagonist. We see the use of unreliable narration in characters who are experiencing trauma or mental illness or who misuse substances, as in The Girl on the Train, A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window, and, indeed, Flynn’s other characters in Dark Places and Sharp Objects.

But Sascha Rothchild, a creator and showrunner of the upcoming XO, Kitty spinoff of the To All the Boys franchise, thinks that describing Amy and female characters as unreliable is a throwaway insult.

“Why can beloved bad men, like Joe Goldberg for instance, run around killing people and be honest to the reader about it,” she says, referencing Caroline Kepnes’s You novels and subsequent Netflix adaptation. “Yet female antagonists always seem to be untrustworthy? Unreliable? Like we cannot possibly give women the space to be bad and tell us the truth about it and allow us to still love them.

“Ruby Simon”—the protagonist of Rothchild’s recent novel Blood Sugar, an unapologetic killer who is described in some literary reviews as an unreliable narrator—“is very honest with us about herself and her deeds and she asks to be loved regardless,” Rothchild adds. “I am certain that without Flynn’s Amy Dunne, there would never have been my Ruby Simon.”

In Gone Girl, Flynn crafts Amy in a way that pulls the rug out from under readers when it’s revealed that everything we’ve been led to believe about her is a lie. Her true motivations are revealed partway through the book in the stunning, controversial twist.

There were the somewhat reductive debates about whether this swerve was misogynistic for portraying Amy’s abuse allegations as fabricated—a far more troubling version of which played out recently in social media’s mockery of Amber Heard. Some readers and viewers of Gone Girl concluded that Amy is manipulative, sociopathic, and murderous; Nick, though, is just as disgraceful, cheating on his wife with a much younger student while harboring clear misogynistic beliefs. “Women are fucking crazy. No qualifier: Not some women, not many women. Women are crazy,” is but one choice quote from Nick’s narration in the novel. Flynn is careful to stay on the right side of the line between laying bare the misogyny of society and tipping into outright misogyny herself. Nick and Amy Dunne are lessons in unflinching character development, flaying open their worst thoughts and impulses in a way that hadn’t really been done before, or at least hadn’t elicited such a response.

“I certainly think that the acknowledgment of female anger as a viable emotion, as something that should be dealt with and acknowledged and appreciated and women feeling that way was one of the reasons that so many people connected to Gone Girl,” Flynn continued in THR.

Another reason: the book’s screed on the “cool girl.” A sample:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

“The fact that people have adapted the cool girl thing shows that there’s enough there that we actually do relate to a fair amount of what she was saying,” said Flynn in 2019. Indeed, the cool girl monologue helped put a name to society’s expectations of women to be docile, pliable, and likable. In doing so, Flynn composed a manifesto for fed-up women, both on the page and off, to shake off these expectations.

“For a few years there, it felt like every book was ‘the next Gone Girl,’” says Fargo. “I think that’s a little tiresome.” Some books over the past decade may have earned that distinction superficially, with little more than the word “girl” in the title. But another, more labor-intensive method is the application of the “Gone Girl twist.” At this point, it’s become something of a literary trope.

“Sometimes you’ll see books [in which it’s obvious that] they inserted the Gone Girl twist, and that’s not necessarily a good thing because not everyone is as good a writer as Gillian Flynn,” says Kristen Lepionka, author of the Roxane Weary mystery series and one of Fargo’s cohosts on Unlikeable Female Characters. “The idea that everything has to have that final twist can be kind of a bad thing. There’s tons of men picking gender-neutral pen names so that they can get in on the fun of writing these women’s domestic thrillers.” Paging A.J. Finn.

A quick look at my Goodreads list shows a catalog of psychological thrillers that implement multiple narrators, timelines, and, in many cases, a Gone Girl–esque twist. There’s The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, last year’s literary phenomenon The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, and, of course, Hawkins’s oeuvre beyond The Girl on the Train. Chances are, many contemporary novels you pick up will dabble in these tropes.

Another similarity between these books and Gone Girl is the fact that most of them have been adapted for the screen, or are set to be. In an era of few original ideas making it to Hollywood, literature is ripe for adaptation. Flynn alone has had adaptations made of three of her books, including Dark Places, starring Charlize Theron, and Sharp Objects, the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries starring (yet again) Amy Adams. Flynn has seized on the industry’s interest to carve out a career now primarily working in film and television, writing the screenplay for Gone Girl and the 2018 film Widows, and showrunning the 2020 Amazon Prime series Utopia. Other female crime thriller writers have followed suit, including Megan Abbott (author of The Turnout, Give Me Your Hand, and Dare Me, which she showran the adaptation of for the USA Network in 2019) and Jessica Knoll (who wrote the screenplay for the adaptation of her novel Luckiest Girl Alive, coming to Netflix with Mila Kunis in the lead role).

I love TV and movies as much as the next person, but I do shed a tear when singular writers abandon the page for the screen. Since Gone Girl’s publication a decade ago, Flynn has published only two other stories, the short story The Grownup in 2015 and the comic Masks, also in 2015 (though she did hint at a Gone Girl sequel in a recent interview with People to celebrate the anniversary). But Flynn’s legacy is such that anyone hankering for a Gone Girl twist needs only to pick up one of the many “girl” thrillers inspired by the book that started it all.

Scarlett Harris is a culture critic and the author of A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler. You can read her previously published work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris.