Lauren Rabaino

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or so commented Leo Tolstoy in the classic opening of “Anna Karenina.” Regardless of whether this quote is true, it certainly seems apropos when considering the Preaker family, the disturbed clan at the heart of Gillian Flynn’s debut book, “Sharp Objects.”

Although it would most comfortably find its home in the mystery/suspense genre, that may partly be because, as of yet, there is no formally recognized genre of really screwed up families who produce really screwed up children who do really screwed up things. Either way, “Sharp Objects” is a creepily entertaining and often darkly humorous work of how intergenerational neuroses can have quite deadly consequences.

At the heart of the story is Camille Preaker, a cub reporter for an obscure Chicago newspaper, who returns to her small hometown of Wind Gap, Mo. to investigate a child’s particularly gruesome murder (the killing involved, among other things, a very sharp set of teeth). Although the police think the murderer was a transient, Camille suspects the killer was a local and sets out to use her roots and connections to uncover long-buried secrets from the past that may explain the violence of the present.

Though Camille is an intelligent, attractive and ambitious reporter, she is not without her inner-struggles that sometimes manifest themselves as outward physical self-mutilation, as evidenced by the many jagged cuts across her body, cuts bad enough to have landed her in a mental institution. Perhaps her interest in uncovering the murderer’s identity is rooted in her own fascination with violence. Or perhaps because she suspects it will somehow help heal the wounds of her troubled past. Or maybe because it just gives her a chance to have kinky and casual sex with one of the investigating officers. Camille is a few shades darker and more complex than Nancy Drew, but that, of course, is part of the story’s allure.

The book is not without its problems. While some of the book’s supporting characters are vividly and memorably drawn, others, such as Camille’s old friends from high school, are so thin they seem to almost blend into one another. And even at a relatively short 252 pages, parts of the book ramble at best and are padded at worst. Still, its strengths considerably outweigh its weaknesses, and the double-twist ending in particular hits just the right combined note of dread, shock and poignancy.

Unhappy families may or may not each be unhappy in their own ways, but they have provided strong inspiration for literature throughout the ages. That’s true again here. Flynn conveys the Preaker family’s singularly dysfunctional dynamics with writing full of subtextual richness in its exploration of how the sins of one generation can be passed down to the next . and possibly redeemed by subsequent generations as well.

Quentin Dunne is a psychology graduate student and Mustang Daily book columnist.

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