What happens when two thirtysomething siblings relive the summer reading programs of their youth in an all-out battle of the books? The race is on as they read by the rules and keep tally on their logs to see who will be the ultimate reader by Labor Day 2010.

August 6, 2010

"Dark Places" and the Real Winner is Named

After being put through the wringer with "Lonesome Dove," I just wanted an easy book where the characters go through a minor conflict, tell each other exactly how they feel, and then resolve their problems with a wedding on a Long Island estate. But I left for a trip on Sunday and was beholden to the books I put on hold at the Chicago Public Library. I'm not sure if Dewey made a classification assignment for "Terrifying Literature Where Psychologically Damaged People Unearth the Horrors of the Past," but I am certain that the books I have selected would sit on that shelf.

I had wanted to read "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn because I had really enjoyed/been creeped out by her "Sharp Objects" a few years ago. I had thought "Sharp Objects" was great but the tiniest bit sloppy- the ending teetered into camp and I thought the villain was a caricature (that being said, there are images from the final chapters that still pop unbidden into my brain three years later like a forgotten nightmare). But "Dark Places" is so fully realized and Flynn's writing is so impressive that I think she establishes herself as one of the best writers around.

The book centers around a farming family, most of whom get butchered by the 15 year-old son presumably as part of a Satanic ritual in 1985. Twenty-four years later, the surviving daughter, emotionally stunted and unable to fit into society, finds herself out of the money that was raised for her in the aftermath of the tragedy. She agrees to interview the key players of that terrible evening on behalf of a fringe group that believes her brother was unjustly imprisoned. The novel is then narrated in three parts in alternating chapters, from the perspective of Libby in the present day and then by her mother and her brother on the day of the murders. These flashbacks make you begin each new chapter with mounting dread – as Libby gets closer to the truth her mother and brother creep closer to the time of the murder and you know there’s not going to be any wedding on a Long Island estate that will make everything all better.

Flynn's virtuosity is on full display here as she creates full-blooded characters who (I hope! Oh, how I hope) are far removed from her own real-life experience. Libby is sympathetic even as she remains (realistically) self-centered and destructive. Ben, the brother, rings true as an angry adolescent struggling to find his place in the world. His mother breaks your heart as she tries to keep her family afloat after years of bad decisions and worse luck. Even the peripheral characters, from low-life drug dealers to the wide-eyed members of the various serial killer fan clubs, come alive in a few paragraphs. She tackles big themes - poverty, sexuality, abuse – but weaves them into the story so gracefully they never seem heavy-handed.

I am desperate to recommend this book to somebody else, but it’s a big risk to tell someone how great a book is where two little girls end up gruesomely murdered.* But I think the emotional depth of the characters elevates this book from run-of-the-mill thriller material into something greater. So if you love mysteries and don’t have children, I hope you consider this book the next time you’re looking for something to read.

*This book would break my sister, so the fact that I am not forcing her to read it as my second challenge shows that I have won. Do you hear me? I won! I have won!!!

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