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The Secret Theme That Unites All Of Gillian Flynn’s Books

I love Gilian Flynn and I have no qualms about it.

She is a superb story artist, a master of crafting complex characters, and the queen of the final act shocker. Her books are so accessible and so delightful, twisting and turning knots of literary goodness. She’s my favorite author, really, because she accomplishes so much in what seems like such little effort.

(And she completely blew up the journalist-to-fiction writer track to find wild success, the type of success that people like myself – and probably any other journalist – covet and wish and hope to have.)

In looking at her works from afar, you can pinpoint a few themes, the things that bring fans like myself coming back and back and back to her. First, the twists. Every work has a wild final act something that intends to knock a reader off their seat. Second, she features strong female leads, typically women who are “behaving badly.” Be it crazed Amy Dunne or self-loathing Camille Preaker, her main characters are quite a distance from likable – and have crazy, backhanded ways of manifesting feminism. She also loves a vice, loves a small town, loves a good killing: she knows her brand and sticks to it.

While these themes certainly get me going, one theme seems to go unnoticed, forgotten in strong characters and shocks: class, socioeconomics, money. All of her stories are set against a wrestling between the rich and the poor, the city versus the country, the haves and the have nots. The power that lingers within her fist and, in many ways, the motivations for these strong, fucked up female characters is their wrestling with the reality of being in America now, with and without financial luxuries. Let me walk you through this, hopefully avoiding any spoilers.

Sharp Objects, Flynn’s debut, wrestles with a woman who returns home from the city to a small town where her financially well off parents seem to overlook a town with dwindling financial options. The final twist of the book – and an ongoing struggle between helping and hurting – relates to said struggle and people manage when under pressure, particularly pressure to be a success.

Dark Places tells the story of a young woman who lived on a trust fund courtesy of an empathetic public who watched the story of her family being brutally murdered on the news. The thrust of this story is the main character’s flirting with amateur investigators for money, which opens the door for this character (and other characters who take the narration) to reflect on how poverty pushed them to these points. The final twist in this story is directly linked to this by offering an acknowledgement of the pressure to live without money.

Gone Girl, Flynn’s magnum opus, has been lauded and lauded for its depicting the recession and late capitalism. The biggest tension in the book isn’t between the two main characters, Amy Dunne and Nick Dunne, but instead between Amy Dunne, a native New Yorker who grew up wealthy, and her new home in Missouri, a place falling apart at the seams as industries die and desperations are revealed.

Lastly, her novella The Grownup sets up a “by your bootstraps” con artist psychic masturbator who grew up conning people on the street for money. The main tension in her story is that she is brought in to a rich woman’s house to “cleanse” a haunted house – only to be caught up in trouble she cannot escape because of her lack of financial power.

Flynn is a master, yes, but she really hasn’t gotten her due for catching how complicated it is to be in America, to make money and get money, to live in and out of capitalism. Unsurprisingly, none of her characters are happy and a lot of this has to do with their coping with money. For many – particularly in Dark Places and Gone Girl – money is the root of the problems. It’s the narrative thrust, really.

As America feels to be on the brink of collapse, Flynn is one to look to as we reflect on how fucked up our world has become as (financial) inequalities widen and make people do crazier and crazier things. She won’t cheer you up with these stories, no, but she will make you feel seen. Let’s just hope our stories, our lives, don’t get as bonkers as her characters’s lives.

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