Late last year, Gone Girl took me so thoroughly by surprise that I knew I had to read more of Gillian Flynn’s books. So I turned to her first, Sharp Objects. Like her more recent novel, Flynn’s debut is dark, twisted, and subversive. She goes for the big shocks, the daring revelations, and she never pulls a punch—instead, she punches harder. With Gone Girl, that daring brought a novel that takes a supposedly happy marriage and reveals the secrets in both partners’ psyches that make a proper happiness impossible. In Sharp Objects, she cuts deeply into family life, exposing how the blood ties that bring life can also bring intolerable pain and death that seeps out beyond the family home.
Camille Parker, the novel’s central character, is a Chicago reporter who is assigned a story about a possible serial killer in her hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. Her editor hopes that the hometown connection will give her an inside scoop and save the paper a few bucks because she can stay with her family. Camille, however, wants nothing to do with her family or her hometown, but she reluctantly agrees to take the assignment.
The crimes, a child murder and an abduction and presumed murder, seem like drama enough for a crime novel. But Flynn spends just as much time on Camille’s family, gradually revealing the ways Camille’s home was a house of horrors that was lethal to the soul. Camille herself literally carries scars all over her body from years of etching words into her skin as a way of communicating and experiencing her pain. Her 13-year-old sister, Amma, seems locked in a state of babyish dependence when at home but becomes a reckless bully when among friends. And the memory of their dead middle sister, Marian, haunts the whole family.
I read Sharp Objects in two sittings, even as I shook my head at its implausibilities. All the while, I hoped that some of the unbelievable behavior would have an explanation, and much of it did. Much of it also points the way to the story’s conclusion. However, parts of the story didn’t sit right with me. For example, Amma’s almost complete transformations went too far in both directions—from obsessing over an elaborate dollhouse in one moment to successfully pressuring her adult sister to take ecstasy in the next. Being 13 can mean going from pigtails to perfume and back again, but the extreme here seemed too extreme.
Flynn seems to specialize in extremes, both here and in Gone Girl. And that’s part of what makes her books great. But what Gone Girl had and this book lacks is a tight sense of discipline surrounding those extremes. Here, the ante kept getting higher and higher to the point that realism was left behind. In Gone Girl, the main characters put on a veneer of respectability that required discipline to convey. Camille’s parents have attempted to do the same, but Flynn focuses so much on the dysfunction that we rarely glimpse the normal veneer. I liked this book, but I never quite believed it.