Because the amount of fiction reading I do is directly proportional to the amount of time I spend at the gym--and because the gym is not the place for complicated, experimental fiction--I've been whipping through novels lately. The one I finished most recently is Gillian Flynn's debut novel, Sharp Objects which I picked up after having read and loved Gone Girl a couple of years back.
Sharp Objects isn't as strong of a novel, though it's very good. Suspense/mystery/crime isn't my preferred genre, but both Gone Girl and Sharp Objects have stuck with me for reasons that are only loosely connected to genre. I guess the easiest way of putting it is that I can't stop thinking about Flynn's women. Both novels are narrated by the kind of women who are familiar from crime fiction, but who usually aren't given the chance to speak for themselves. You know: tough, beautiful, damaged, and dangerous to themselves or others. The kind of woman the male hero gets entangled with--and usually tries but fails to save.
But the women in Flynn's novels get to be more than just enigmas or objects of fascination; they show us heterosexual femininity under pressure. Some of her female characters are monstrous (Sharp Objects has a lot of these, from country-club backstabbers to suffocating mothers to mean-girl tweens), but even their monstrosity seems just a twisted and exaggerated version of types we all know. We know those types, because we live in a world where many women feel the pressures of femininity. And so they have coercive sex at 13; shun and shame other women for fear of losing status; transform themselves into perfect homemakers and spend their days shopping and decorating and drinking themselves into stupefaction.
Flynn's women are not tragic victims and they're far from feminist heroes. But in indirect and often self-serving ways, they make a feminist point about our social scripts for women. The famous "cool girl speech" from Gone Girl may have been delivered by an extremely unreliable narrator, but as its popularity suggests, it's a sentiment a lot of women relate to. As someone who was an awfully angry teen and twentysomething (though quiet and almost entirely unrebellious), I tend to believe there's a lot more female rage out there than we talk about. In Gillian Flynn, the fury of the pretty girl and the hostility of the good girl are all right there. It's a reality I appreciate seeing depicted.