Book(s) review

Note to readers: my intent for the past few months has been to blog about books. I’m still working on the design for that blog, but wanted to get started on the writing part early. So, mixed in with the travelogue this week will be some book-writing. Here’s the first installment:

In the last month I’ve read two novels that could have been templates for Law and Order episodes. Whether that’s a good thing is debatable.  On the plus side, it means that both stories had compelling protagonists, dramatic tension, and plot twists that kept me reading. On the negative side, the protagonists were unpleasant and the plot twists often left me queasy. But the writing was so good I had to keep reading, because I wanted to know how the stories would turn out.

The first book, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, caught my attention because it had gotten excellent reviews. The second, A Fair Maiden, by Joyce Carol Oates, landed on my reading pile courtesy of my friend Caterina Edwards, herself a writer (, who presented it to me before I left on a three-week trip to Europe because it wouldn’t take long to read and I could leave it there (she didn’t want it back, which probably should have been a warning).

Both books have two main characters, both of whom are master manipulators and, consequently, not very appealing (unless you like master manipulators, in which case you’ll love all four of these fictional folks).

Gone Girl is narrated in alternate sections by husband and wife Nick and Amy Dunne. The book begins on their fifth wedding anniversary. Amy has gone missing (quite violently, judging from the bloody mess in their house), and Nick appears to be the prime suspect.

As the story goes on, it’s hard not to believe the cops have the right person. Nick is an immature, emotionally tone-deaf narcissist whose resentment toward the one-time love of his life oozes out of every page. Amy, the daughter of two psychologists who used her as the model for their best-selling Amazing Amy book series, did not deserve such enmity from the man who pledged to love her until death did them part.

Or did she? When Amy takes over the narration, it becomes apparent that she is far more demented than her husband. He’s pathetic; she’s pathological. If the cops knew Amy the way the readers do, they might be tempted to give Nick an award for saving the world from a woman who ranks right up there with the worst psychopaths from the creepiest episodes of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

Oates’ storyline, on the other hand, is more suited to Law and Order: SVU, as it concerns a 16-year-old nanny from a white trash family in New Jersey who develops an inappropriate relationship with a lonely, patrician and very rich old man she meets while strolling with her two young charges at the Jersey Shore one summer day.

Katya is a textbook child of a dysfunctional family. She is the youngest of four children. Her father disappeared when she was nine. Every once in a while she fantasizes that he’s fighting in a war (Afganistan? Iraq? She’s not sure), or making lots of money and will eventually return home to rescue her from her mother, a drinking, drugging, slutty woman with a gambling problem. Katya also has relatives who have been in prison, one as a warden, another as an inmate.

The adults in Katya’s summer family aren’t a whole lot better than those in  her year-round family: they just have more money. Mr. Englehardt ogles her and Mrs. Englehardt is a textbook nouveau rich-witch. Katya sleeps on frayed sheets, dries herself with worn-out towels, and has to face the Englehardt’s prying questions even when she isn’t doing anything to warrant suspicion (which is often).

Mrs. Englehardt doesn’t trust Katya, which makes you wonder why she hired her in the first place. However, Oates explains that away by pointing out that Mrs. E is so notoriously cheap, no respectable nanny would settle for her lousy salary. Katya’s standards aren’t that high.

As befits someone who has been drinking herself to sleep since middle school and was raped by a distant relative at 14, Katya has a tough, cynical exterior. Inside, though, she’s a marshmallow, a needy, lonely girl who wants nothing more than to be liked, and to please the mother who clearly sees her as a burden (except when Katya can come up with cash to bail her out of her latest financial fiasco).

To the rescue comes Marcus Kidder, a handsome septuagenarian who has written and illustrated children’s books and would like nothing more than to paint Katya’s portrait. After all, as he tells Katya, she’s his soul mate. He has known this ever since he laid eyes on her.

No, no, Katya! Do not do this, the reader thinks. Run as fast and as far as you can from Marcus Kidder, that crazy man. But again, Oates has set up the reader to understand exactly why Katya would be lured into hanging out with Marcus Kidder.

It is creepy, but it’s not preposterous. Whether that makes it worthwhile reading depends on your taste. The turning point is especially unsettling, but if you’ve watched a lot of Law and Order, it will seem uncomfortably familiar, much like Amy Dunne’s behavior in Gone Girl.

I won’t get into the endings here; if you want the endings spoiled, read the reviews on Amazon. All I’ll say is, if you’re someone whose feelings about a book hinge on how it ends, you may want to rethink how you approach Gone Girl and A Fair Maiden.

What makes the books worth reading isn’t how they end, it’s how they unfold. Flynn and Oates have tremendous control over their characters (and as such, they’re pretty good at manipulating their readers). Even the bit players are unforgettable.

One of the most memorable scenes in Gone Girl involves Amy and two people who have come into her life for a very brief time, but are so vivid you could easily imagine Flynn writing an entire book about them.

If you do not enjoy getting into the heads of creepy, disturbed people, you should read something else. But if you’re curious about what motivates those whose motivation is anything but altruistic, Gone Girl and A Fair Maiden offer a much safer alternative than getting into relationships with living, breathing creepy, disturbed people.



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