Book review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Three of five stars

Some people are doomed from birth, it seems. Libby Day is one of those unfortunates. When she was seven, her family was murdered. Her teenaged brother was convicted of the crime based on Libby’s testimony. And twenty-five years later, she’s at the end of the money raised for her while she was that sweet-faced surviving tot, and earned from the book she published about the tragedy while she in her 20s. With no education, no job skills, and no family except an aunt who won’t return her phone calls, a brother serving a life sentence, and a deadbeat father — whereabouts mostly unknown — Libby faces the almost-certain probability of destitution and homelessness. Then a letter arrives in the mail, inviting her to appear at a convention of murder buffs and offering her $500 for the appearance.

As it turns out, these murder buffs think her brother Ben is innocent. And Libby sees an opportunity to milk her tragedy for profit yet again, by making these pathetic fools pay her for finding and interviewing all the remaining players and reporting back any information she discovers. Not that she expects to find anything, or even make much money, for that matter. But when $500 is the difference between having a roof over her head and living in her car, she’ll take what she can get.

The story structure alternates between Libby’s search in the present, and the events of that terrible day in January 1985 when her mother and sisters died. There isn’t a single likeable person in this entire cast of characters: Ben Day is surly and not very bright; Michelle Day, the oldest sister, is nosy and selfish; Patty Day, their mother, is weak-willed; Libby herself was whiny and clingy as a child, self-absorbed and larcenous as an adult. But they — especially Patty and Libby — struggle so hard, and fight so desperately for their day-to-day survival, to find a piece of solid ground where they can stand tall and be safe.

I know these people. I see them every day in my work. And while I may dislike them on one level, I still love them on an entirely different level, a “there but for the grace of God” level. These are the denizens of the trash-strewn trailer parks and the ramshackle tumbledown farmhouses. This is the mother too proud for food stamps but terrified she can’t feed her children. This is the teenage boy learning to be a man in today’s world and lacking any positive role model to emulate. This is the young girl bounced from relative to relative because no one wants her to stay for long, but everyone refuses to let become a ward of the state because she’s family and “we take care of our own.” They break my heart with their failure, their abject poverty, with being beaten down by a trick of circumstance and the consequence of poor choices.

But in the end, I admire Libby. She had a tough row to hoe. She’s a survivor. I hope she finds some happiness someday.


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