Thursday, March 25, 2021

Book 277: Dark Places


"I am a liar and a thief. Don't let me into your house, and if you do, don't leave me alone. I take things. You can catch me with your string of fine pearls clickering in my greedy little paws, and I'll tell you they reminded me of my mother's and I just had to touch them, just for a second, and I'm so sorry, I don't know what came over me. My mom never owned any jewelry that didn't turn her skin green, but you won't know that. And I'll still swipe the pearls when you're not looking."

Dates read: November 19-22, 2018

Rating: 6/10

When I was in high school, I tore through true crime books. I loved the sense of controlled fear they gave me...sure, people did terrible things, but I knew the police got them in the end. My mom always thought it was a little macabre that I so frequently came home from the library or bookstore with an Ann Rule anthology. These days, though, true crime is big business. Not just books, but the first season of "Serial" kicked off the podcast particular, those revisiting old crimes. Some of them are more respectful than others (I'm side-eying you, My Favorite Murder), but as a culture, there's no denying we're obsessed with these mysteries, both solved and unsolved.

It wasn't that long ago, though, that people on the whole viewed true crime more along the lines my mother did: kind of morbid. So, in Gillian Flynn's Dark Places, when Libby Day, the only survivor of the murder of her entire family (besides her absentee father and the murderer himself), finds herself hard enough up for cash to attend the meeting of a group of true crime enthusiasts, the people she meets are very weird. The testimony Libby gave as a child put her older brother, Ben, behind bars, where he's been for the 25 years since. Little Libby had attracted donations for her future, and spent years living off of the proceeds, her unhealed psychological wounds (and not especially high levels of motivation) keeping her out of the workforce. But when she encounters the group, she's flat broke, and they offer her money to go back and talk to the people that were around back then...they believe Ben was innocent, and want Libby to help prove it.

The book is told through three perspectives: Libby in the present day, as well as Ben and their mother Patty in the past. We learn about the poverty the four Day children lived in on the family farm, their father's cruelty towards them, their mother's despair. We watch Libby's certitude about what happened on that terrifying night begin to erode as she digs deeper into the story, becomes invested despite herself. And we finally learn the truth of what happened, and Libby finds herself in danger of not surviving this time.

If you've read Flynn's enormously-bestselling Gone Girl (and you probably have, everyone has at this point, right?), you know that she really enjoys writing unlikable characters. Dark Places is not different on that score: Libby is prickly and angry, and although she obviously suffering from untreated PTSD and depression, it doesn't make her a pleasant person to spend time with. Teenage Ben has an inexplicable relationship with his rich and mean high school girlfriend, and a deeply problematic involvement with an elementary school girl. Patty is probably the most sympathetic, but her inability to protect her children from their father and the consequences of her own decisions make her difficult to really emotionally invest with. Everyone here is miserable and unable to cope with it, and while they do all feel realistic, it's very dark to spend time with them.

Unpleasant though they may be, the characters are richly realized, and Flynn's writing is compelling and vivid. The plot mostly hangs together through its twists and least, until the end. I'm not going to spoil it, but the ending feels incongruous with the rest of the book, taking a very different tone, and feels very out-of-left-field in a bad way. I'm not big into mystery/thrillers, so I'm not really sure how this fits into it and who exactly Flynn was writing for. It, like Gone Girl, is very interested in exploring female rage, and it feels by virtue of its character development more literary than typical for the genre. But it's also very bleak, with very little humor or lightness to break it up. It's well-constructed and interesting, but was not especially enjoyable for me to read. If what I've written sounds like something you're interested in checking out, I'd recommend it. But if it doesn't sound like it's for you, I assure you this is not a must-read.

One year ago, I was reading: White Teeth

Two years ago, I was reading: The Rules of Attraction

Three years ago, I was reading: Of Human Bondage

Four years ago, I was reading: Stranger in a Strange Land

Five years ago, I was reading: Sex with Kings

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