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Four Psychological Thrillers Whose Female Characters Have Few Redeemable Qualities (if any)

Is it so wrong for me, as a reader, want to root for my characters? How about genuinely care about their well-being? I find that the more concerned, interested and invested I am in a character, the more I enjoy their story, and the more likely I am to continue reading.

Lately, I’ve found this very difficult in the Psychological Thriller/Suspense genre. To me, the main characters in these books have been so totally without any positive qualities that I almost quit reading, tossing the book on the top of my DNF pile. While I did, in the end, finish these books, it was not because I was invested in the success of the main character. Rather, it was out of sheer curiosity and a need for closure.

I would like to discuss four very popular, well written, complex, NY Times best-selling novels, a few of which have been optioned for block buster movies, in the thriller/suspense genre whose characters have absolutely no redeemable qualities – and sadly they’re all women.

Spoilers ahead, proceed at your own risk

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, Gone Girl, was a huge success that led to a blockbuster film complete with Oscar nods. The novel opens with Nick Dunne, an out of work writer, now half owner of a dive bar with his sister, discovering that his wife of five years is missing. Amy Dunne is an effervescent, wickedly intelligent beauty who seems to have it all. But, as a stay at home wife, she’s bored and unsatisfied with her marriage. At the beginning of the novel I truly believed that Nick was responsible for his wife’s disappearance. The evidence seemed to be there and his nonchalant demeanor really had me pointing fingers. Just as I had resigned myself to the conclusion that he must have done it, Flynn flips the book around and we discover that, in fact, Amy Dunne is alive. And not only is she alive, but she staged her own abduction and disappearance. Well played Gillian Flynn, well played. Victimization, traditional gender roles and marital disenchantment are themes that run throughout the novel. It could be argued that Amy Dunne is a strong, smart woman, who under great duress, needed a way out of a toxic relationship. She plays victim to her husband’s cheating, apathetic ways and when she couldn’t stand it any longer, she devised a plan so absurd that he would pay the price for his ignorance of her pain.

Personally, I don’t buy it. I choose to believe that she is a narcissistic, spoiled, emotionally unstable woman who grew bored with her husband, her life in general and needed some way to garner attention wherever she could get it. If she hadn’t been attention seeking don’t you think she would have followed through and killed herself as she initially planned to? I do. In the end there was nothing that I felt justified her actions. It was all a big ring-around-the-rosy with no positive outcome or redeeming moments. That being said, Flynn did an amazing job of creating an incredibly complex, dynamic character who just happens to be incredibly unlikeable.

The Girl on the Train

Another wildly popular novel, The Girl on the Train, was hailed the “next” Gone Girl by critics and readers worldwide. I read this novel because of the rave reviews and hoped that it would have what Gone Girl lacked – which was a character to root for. Once again I was disappointed. In this novel, Rachel Watson rides the train into the city every day to a job that doesn’t exist. As she sits in her seat watching the world stream by, the train passes the home that used to belong to her but is now occupied by her ex-husband, his new wife, Anna, and their little girl. From the train, Rachel also notices a young couple, Scott and Megan, who live near her old home. They seem to be happy and normal – until Megan is found to be missing.

Initially I very much wanted to root for Rachel, but I found her to be unreliable and flakey as a primary character. Devastated because she is unable to have a child, she spirals down the dark path of alcoholism. Her dependency on alcohol causes her to lose her job and her marriage. And in many ways Rachel’s alcoholism serves as a vehicle for a lot of the plot – without her hazy, alcohol muddled memories and near constant black outs we would have figured out what happened to Megan Hipwell much sooner. At one point I almost put this one down because Rachel was seriously ruining white wine for me. But I couldn’t do it – I needed to know what happened to Megan. So once again, I didn’t finish the book because I wanted the characters to work it out – I just wanted to know HOW it worked out.

Like Gone Girl, marital strife and self-victimization are key plot themes in this book. Rachel’s marriage ended in failure, although it was never a good marriage to begin with. Similarly, the other two women who have large parts in the novel experience dishonesty and manipulation in their marriages as well. I wanted these women to advocate for themselves and show us some gumption! Sadly I found them lacking in assertiveness or likeability.

Dark Places

Let’s just say Gillian Flynn knows how to write dark, twisty books that make your stomach want to curl in on itself. Dark Places tells the story of Libby Day, who as a child witnesses the brutal murder of her two sisters and mother in their Kansas home in what appears to be a satanic ritual. Libby escapes and later testifies against her teenage brother who is accused of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Years later, she’s a bitter and abrasive adult lacking social skills and in need of money. Libby’s primary defense mechanism is cynicism and skepticism. She trusts no one, is dishonest, unforgiving and feels no guilt about these things. All characteristics which make it hard to find any redeeming qualities at the end of the book.

Throughout this one I just wanted it to be over. Libby's constant snarky dialogue and her attitude made it really difficult for me to want to continue reading. But in the end, I just wanted to know what exactly happened that night? So I continued to read the book.

But by the time I finished it, my stomach hurt and I was wondering why did I just read all of that?

In A Dark, Dark Wood

Ruth Ware's psychological thriller about a bachelorette party gone terribly wrong is everything you hope it would be - with the exception of a kick ass narrator. Leonora is a shy, introverted writer who spends the majority of her time in her London flat writing crime novels and running through the park. When she is invited to an old friend's bachelorette party she has second thoughts, but attends anyway. As the party progresses it becomes apparent that the party is going to be anything but traditional "hen" party fun. Leonora later wakes in a hospital, scrambling to recover her memories of the night and someone is dead.

Intrigued? Yeah, I was too. And I have to say, I was really hoping for a strong female lead on this one and once again was disappointed. I wanted Leonora to get herself together and be a fighter but the majority of the time she was uncomfortable, and indecisive. She wasn't complex or dynamic in any way and was upstaged by the supporting characters. In my opinion she completely lacked a back bone, which was disappointing because it would have been nice to see something good happen for her in the end. She just wouldn't let it! Similarly to the three other books, victimization is a main theme really shows apparent in Leonora. So sadly, I felt bummed at the end of this one too.

I'm aware that this standard of this genre, but I'm curious - has anyone out there read anything with a truly likable lead in the psychological thriller/suspense genre?
Where are all the kick ass women?!
 If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Also, maybe your opinion of these books differs from mine? What's your take on these four books?

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