Sophomore Slump

Author: Gillian Flynn

Dark Places Cover

Dark Places Cover

In her first book, Sharp Objects, author Gillian Flynn brought us a deeply flawed and fragile heroine in a perilous and sadly familiar situation.  In her third, the bestselling Gone Girl, her characters were less likable but her plotting was absolutely brilliant.  Her second novel, Dark Places, proves that she is fallible.  Call it a sophomore slump, but while it’s still better than most of the crap posing as thrillers these days, this one just missed the mark.

Dark Places takes us into the life of Libby Day.  It isn’t a good life; it isn’t even a passable life.  Libby is sheltered and mean, defensive and entitled, damaged and ruined before she even had a chance to begin her life.  Libby Day is the lone survivor of a massacre that killed her sisters and mother and put her brother behind bars for committing the crime.  Her testimony helped seal his fate.

Now Libby is running out of money.  In the many years since that horrible night, she has been living off of donations from well-wishers but she’s old news now.  At the ripe old age of 30, she needs to find some way to support herself.  Knowing nothing else, she falls into selling the story of her family.  But this time, it isn’t a book or a newspaper article, it’s a group of people who want to dig into the crime, and want her to help.  She never revisits that night – it’s a dark place.  Now she needs to take it out, dust it off and face the event that destroyed her all over again.

Libby isn’t a lovable woman – she has no reason to be.  She went through a horrible tragedy and was then exploited for it her whole life.  She pushed away anyone who tried to care for her, becoming volatile, destructive and hateful.  Now she’s being told she was wrong, that she wrongfully put her brother in prison for a crime he did not commit.  That’s a whole lot of psychic trauma.  So we get why she’s nasty, but it doesn’t make her any easier to like or root for.

And there is the core problem with Dark Places.  It isn’t a bad book – it’s actually a very well structured and fairly tightly plotted book.  We see the story of the murders slowly play out in flashback through the eyes of both her mother and brother as Libby searches her for the truth in her life and in her memory, making the story come alive as we see bad decisions and hard lives lead to tragic consequences.  The story of what happened that night is gripping, with Libby’s mother Patty and her brother Ben being strong, complex characters with nicely balanced flaws, insecurities and shining moments of goodness that make them sadly fragile and human.  But Libby as an adult is a much harder sell.  It is her life that we need to invest in, as she is the one now struggling to emerge from the haze of her past.  Unfortunately, Flynn makes her just that little touch too nasty for the reader to really engage – she pushes us away like she does everyone else.

In the end, Dark Places in most definitely a book worth reading, but those of us who read Flynn’s other two books first may come away disappointed that the story never reaches quite the level of characterization as Sharp Objects or plotting magic of Gone Girl. The story is above average, the writing, as always, is tight and well paced, but Libby just never pulled me into her world.  I wanted to know what happened in the past, but didn’t end up caring what became of our heroine.  So 3 stars out of 5 and a recommendation for fans of Flynn – just don’t expect the highs of the other two books.  I have no doubt that Flynn has many more home runs in her but this one is more like a double with a misguided attempt to steal third.

– S. Millinocket

Sue Millinocket
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