There is an epigraph in Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, that is pertinent for both the books I read last week:
Love is the world’s infinite mutability; lies, hatred, murder, even, are all knit up in it; it is the inevitable blossoming of its opposites, a magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood.
Gone Girl has had a huge impact on the book world since it came out; whilst the other novel I read, The Obsession by T. V. LoCicero will be unknown to most people, I imagine. But both are pacy, gripping narratives about love grown monstrous and out of control.
The Obsession is a stalker novel – and you may remember I read one of those not so long ago, but written sympathetically by a woman from the perspective (in part) of the stalker herself. This novel is an altogether more masculine affair. Lina Lentini is an Italian comparative literature specialist, a beautiful and brilliant woman, and a highly principled one. When she is made a lucrative offer to become visiting scholar at a Catholic Midwestern University, she decides that a break from Bologna will do her research and her spirits good. However, from the moment she arrives, trouble is brewing. She falls into a passionate relationship with an older professor seeking escape from his own deeply troubled marriage, and it’s not long afterwards that the pranks start. Her phone number is listed in newspapers and on mensroom walls for personal services, pornographic books are littered around college containing her name and the promise of a $10 reward on return, and gradually the attacks become darker and more personal and menacing until Lina is forced to flee America. Then, just when she thinks she’s safe in Italy, her stalker appears again. I don’t want to say anymore and spoil the plot, but there are initially a number of candidates for the role of Lina’s tormentor, but as the narrative progresses uncertainty drops away until the reader is caught up in a game of cat and mouse, wondering how far Lina must go to protect herself and the life she holds dear.
Gone Girl is the up close and personal account of a marriage gone disastrously awry. When the novel begins, Nick is narrating and it is the day of his fifth wedding anniversary to Amy. From the very start the atmosphere is uneasy and disturbing; it’s clear something is very wrong in the marriage, beyond the illness of Nick’s mother and the redundancies both have suffered from from good writing jobs in New York, precipitating their move to Missouri. Later on that same day, Nick receives a warning call from a neighbour. The front door to his house is wide open, and Amy does not seem to be around. When Nick gets home he encounters the signs of a violent struggle in the living room and Amy is missing. As the search for her gets underway, the narrative is interspersed with entries from Amy’s diary, dating back to five years or so before the main events we are reading. Inevitably the police are fixated on Nick as the potential killer, and Amy’s diary makes for disquieting reading. But where is this diary that contains so much damaging information, and come to that, where is Amy’s body to be found? This is another book whose plot is its chief delight, so I won’t say any more, except that twists and turns abound, and nothing that comes from the pens of these two terribly unreliable narrators is what it seems.
Both novels, though, are fascinating portraits of gender rancour, or the amazing ability men and women have to love and loathe each other with intensity. The Obsession is more straightforward in its premise; sexuality remains a dark and vexed region where reason holds no sway and the agony of unrequited love can provoke unstable individuals to violence. Love, which ought to promote ethical behaviour, can equally destroy it. Gone Girl begins with a great deal of subtlety in its evocation of a failing marriage, detailing the very ordinary way that men can become lazy in love and women overexert themselves by means of compensation (causing deep resentment). Squabbles over money, and family worries and questions about starting a family may seem superficially benign and the stuff of everyday life. But left unresolved and untended, they are capable of causing a very powerful rage to build, one that provokes threatening thoughts in an outwardly loving couple.
However, both books ask us to consider the possibility that, under the right circumstances, love can become murderous hatred. I actually found this far more convincing in The Obsession, where it was clear from the start that we were dealing with a damaged individual. In Gone Girl, the subtle and detailed portrait of an ordinarily horrible relationship is sacrificed for ever more exciting and unpredictable twists and turns; inevitably, this means one of our couple has to turn out to be pretty much insane, which I confess I was a bit of a disappointment. Of course, the underlying assumption here is that madness might be the ultimate result of meeting and falling in love with a nemesis. Well, you can judge for yourselves how well each novel juggles with that conundrum. Gone Girl still has a great deal to recommend it, primarily a very engaging story, with that awful-but-hypnotic voyeuristic insight into another couple’s domestic strife, and genuinely surprising twists. As for The Obsession, this was the first self-published novel I’ve ever read, and I was properly impressed and surprised by the quality of the story and the writing. Kindle readers, take note.