In Search of My Favorite Dark Bookish Feeling, or, Gillian Flynn Ruined My Life

By Brittney Reed-Saltz

Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a workshop on reader’s advisory with Becky Spratford, an expert on connecting readers with books. (You can check out her blog here.) During the workshop, Becky talked a lot about book appeals, and about how when we look for books, we’re really looking for the feeling and the frame. We love books because of how they make us feel, not necessarily because of the plot, which varies wildly from book to book… or, at least, it should!

That spurred me to think more about why I love my favorite books, and it helped me to identify the root cause of one of my biggest problems as a reader.

I guess you could call it Gone Girl Syndrome, or OMG-Why-Hasn’t-Gillian-Flynn-Written-A-New-Book-Yet Disorder. Like most of the rest of the world, I read Gone Girl a few years ago, and I loved it. When I read Dark Places and Sharp Objects, I discovered that I loved them even more. Then I read Flynn’s novella The Grownup… And then I was finished. With her entire oeuvre. And thus began the sad Googling.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking for books that are similar to Flynn’s, with varying degrees of success and a bit of floundering. What to search for? Gone Girl readalikes? Domestic thrillers? Psychological thrillers by women? The problem, of course, is that genre lists only go so far, and suggested readalikes don’t always capture what I like about a book in the first place. You can spend all day long telling me to read Tana French, but since police procedurals are hit-or-miss for me, it’s just not going to be the same.

So, what is it about Flynn’s work that makes it so irresistible to me?

I sat down and made a list of appeal terms that describe her writing. Here’s what I realized that her books have in common: They are dark, suspenseful, and engrossing. They are literary, with plenty of time spent on characterization, and they might employ multiple perspectives or play with form. They are psychological, and they often turn up bleak (very bleak) observations about people and society. Finally, they prominently feature “unlikable” characters and unreliable narrators, most of whom are women.

Once I had that list, I realized that those terms also describe other books I’ve read that have successfully given me that elusive Gillian Flynn feeling.

Here are those books:

The Secret History by Donna Tarttsecret history
Students at a prestigious New England university develop deep, complicated relationships while studying together in an exclusive Classics course. As they become increasingly wrapped up in the world they’ve created, tensions rise and give way to betrayal and death. Tartt takes her time developing characters that I loved to hate. They are glamorously despicable and so much fun to read about as you wonder if and when their lies will be revealed. Donna Tartt isn’t exactly an unknown author, and this is far from being a new book, but if you’ve been putting off trying her work, I can’t recommend The Secret History enough.

night filmNight Film by Marisha Pessl
I got so sucked into Night Film that it made me angry at real life for interfering with my reading time. This novel follows a disgraced journalist as he researches the death of the daughter of a cult film director, employing unlikely allies and extreme measures to sniff out suspected conspiracy. There were many times as I read Night Film that I had no clue what was happening or what was real, and I couldn’t get enough. The included photographs, documents, and web content add extra layers of involvement to this convoluted mystery. If you’re like me, you’ll wish that the movies this book describes were real, but unfortunately we’ll have to settle for alternatives. (David Lynch is a suggested substitute, and he comes pretty close.)

Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylanlong black veil
A group of friends go into the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary. One of them does not come out. Twenty years later, the body’s discovery dredges up memories and secrets that could ruin the lives of everyone involved. The spooky frame of this novel piqued my interest, but instead of a horror novel set in a derelict building (which would also have been pretty fun for me), I got effortlessly drawn character studies that interrogate the meaning of identity and change. Flashbacks between the present day and the day of the murder and the switches in perspective maintain suspense. Be advised that you find out who the killer is about halfway through, but don’t worry: The whodunnit isn’t the point, and there are plenty of reasons to keep reading to the very last page. (Also be advised that this book includes some animal deaths. The two scenes are brief and serve the plot, but if that’s a deal-breaker for you, steer clear.)

ultraluminousUltraluminous by Katherine Faw
A prostitute returns to New York City from Dubai, leaving behind an ex-lover, under unknown circumstances. Who is she, and why is she back? The details unfold as the narrator recounts her daily routines and her interactions with clients, giving up piece by piece until the full picture is revealed at the end. Faw doesn’t shy away from a bit of literary experimentation, writing in vignettes and eschewing all names in favor of the  dehumanizing sobriquets the narrator assigns to her johns. If you want a gritty examination of what it means to be in control, this is your book. I loved how it played with my expectations and kept me nervous and slightly confused. I read chapter after chapter after chapter like I was scarfing down potato chips, shocked when my knuckles brushed against the bottom of the bag.

Apparently, we can expect a new Gillian Flynn book in 2021, when she will release a retelling of HamletThat’s my favorite Shakespeare play, and I think that if anyone can get it right, it’s her. Until then, I hope that these recommendations help ease your impatience as they have eased mine.

And don’t worry; I’m always looking for more. If you see me at the circ desk, don’t be afraid to ask which books have given me that Gillian Flynn feeling lately, or to share your own suggestions!

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