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September 17, 2015

Please Stop Comparing Books to GONE GIRL!

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You know that a book has officially surpassed the bestseller range and attained the elusive category of ‘phenomenon’ when everyone from your office IT guy to your crazy cat-lady neighbor has heard of it. In the last decade, few books have been able to accomplish this feat, but once it happens these works are, for better or for worse, forever cemented into our cultural cannon. There have been a handful within recent memory: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Gray, and most recently, Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller GONE GIRL.

Lucky enough to have been interning for Random House at the time, I discovered GONE GIRL only a week after its initial publication in June 2012. The in-house buzz that it generated was almost palpable. Like dozens of my co-workers, I stayed up late eagerly turning its pages, kept rapt by its complex characters, incredible prose and unprecedented plot twists. No one could stop talking about it: ‘OMG, when I got to Part Two,’ ‘Seriously, she’s so right, Cool Girl is such a fallacy,’ ‘And the part with Desi! OMG!’ I was right in the thick of this amazement --- never before had I read something that shocked me so much and kept me hooked from cover to cover. I knew even then that it would be a long time until I read a book like that.

I spent a few years in thriller-abstinence, knowing that nothing would ever compare. And then, lo and behold, 2015 stormed in with a flood of titles that sales people and reviewers alike were brazenly comparing to GONE GIRL. And yet none was really deserving of that distinction.

The first was January’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, a title that I eagerly borrowed from a fellow GONE GIRL-devotee. I had been reading pre-release reviews about it for weeks, fervently hoping that this would be a delicious piece of ‘brain candy’ that would distract me from the intensity of the research project that I was working on at the time. As soon as I picked up the book, I took a deep breath and dived right in, ready to be amazed. But I wasn’t.

It’s not that THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN isn’t an entertaining read; Hawkin’s protagonist is a great example of a truly unreliable narrator, and its plot twists keep the reader guessing until the very end. But first and foremost, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is a thriller, devoid of any of the literary beauty that snakes throughout Flynn’s work. Without any keen social observations, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN relies almost solely on plot to move the narrative along, making it an entertaining read, but not more so than any classic Agatha Christie or Stephen King title. Definitely not worthy of the comparison to GONE GIRL.

After THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN disappointment, I became extremely wary of anything comped to GONE GIRL. But in mid-June, in the midst of a reading slump, Jessica Knoll’s LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE was given to me as a gift. After reading the positive blurbs on the back cover, I decided to give it a try. And again, disappointment reigned supreme. Like THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, it wasn’t as if LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE wasn’t entertaining --- it was, with twists and turns that sped towards an unpredictable climax. But unlike the Hawkins book, LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE was --- and I can think of no better word for it --- trashy. While none of the characters in GONE GIRL are even remotely likable, they are all complex and human enough to elicit fasciation. But Ani FaNelli just feels displeasing and fake. Spending 300-plus pages within her mind and her perverse backstory didn’t feel like the thriller/literary escape that it was compared to; instead, it felt like a tasteless beach read that also happened to be a mystery.

But even the major disappointments of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE didn’t deter me from once again entering the terrain of GONE GIRL-esque fiction. The launch of Scout Press in fall 2015 made headlines in the publishing community --- if nowhere else --- and book nerd that I am, I was desperate to read the lead titles. No doubt banking on the extreme popularity of GONE GIRL, Scout Press’s first release was British novelist Ruth Ware’s literary mystery IN A DARK, DARK WOOD. It seemed that everyone in the literary world was buzzing about it, once again heralding it as the deserved successor of GONE GIRL. Needless to say, I was very, very hesitant.

But after literally tearing through Ware’s novel in 48 hours, I can make no other compliment for the book other than that it was really, really good. As she follows reclusive writer Nora’s weekend at her former best friend Claire’s hen party (think British version of bachelorette party), Ware constantly makes her reader reexamine their initial assumptions about the motivations and personalities underneath the complex cohort who populate this weekend getaway. It really was an awesome read --- but yet the very first thing that I thought when I completed it was: “Not as good as GONE GIRL.” The pre-reading comparison to one of the most memorable books of the millennium had, in all honesty, tainted my reading of IN A DARK, DARK WOOD. Because I couldn’t detach myself from that comp, I couldn’t enjoy Ware’s work for what it was by itself: an extremely promising literary thriller. At this point, I knew that the GONE GIRL references had finally gone too far.

So my takeaway from this series of disappointed reading experiences, which no doubt has been experienced by other readers as well? As great as comp titles are for a sales tool, comparing a literary thriller to GONE GIRL, like comparing any work of kid’s fantasy to Harry Potter, is now inevitably clichéd, inaccurate and guilty of setting up the reader for disappointment. So publishing world, please stop comparing books to GONE GIRL. Just let them be themselves and let readers draw their own parallels. Thanks.