The success of Gone Girl lead to a series of imitators. Some of them are full blooded and can stand on their own, but a lot of them are pale. Gillian Flynn’s book was not thrown together, but was carefully constructed and plotted – and she and other authors alike are probably sick of the endless comparisons. When you have a book like Darcey Bell’s A Simple Favour, which is a blatant facsimile of Gone Girl with all the good parts taken out and a thousand idiotic kitchen sinks thrown in, you have to make the comparison. A Simple Favour literally could not exist without the intervention of Gillian Flynn, and humanity is collectively stupider for it.
Mommy Blogger Stephanie has a son, Miles, and a best friend, Emily. One Friday, Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son Nicky from school … but never comes to retrieve him. As the days pass Stephanie posts an increasingly panicked series of blog entries, and teams up with Emily’s husband Sean to share the parenting load. Is Emily merely AWOL, or has something far more sinister befallen her?
You will notice almost immediately that Stephanie’s son is Miles and that her late husband was named Davis, the sort of cutesy name combination that should either be commented upon in the text or have been banished in a later round of drafting. Soon after it becomes apparent that this is the least of A Simple Favour’s problems, a book containing a multitude of twists, but never the one twist that you’re after: a character with an IQ in at least the double digits who tries to make any sense of what they’re experiencing.
A Simple Favour uses multiple narrators but none of them offer significantly different angles on the storyline. Stephanie is supposed to be an “unreliable narrator” just because she has two modes: mommy blog (Sample entry: “Hi, Moms! I have sad news to report.”) and direct narration where she admits what she omitted from the blogs. The thing about Stephanie is that it becomes apparent too quickly that she has problems not just with impulse control, basic morality, and information disclosure, but also that she is gullible and shockingly unintelligent. Many choices that she makes have no basis in reality and any sensible reader will spend the majority of A Simple Favour on the edge of credulity.
You can’t go too far into the details of a book like this without giving too much away – even when the individual critic thinks the developments are stupid, there’s probably some sort of spoiler honour code in play – but it’s not an exaggeration to say that past a certain point A Simple Favour doesn’t make any sense. Many thrillers are contingent on people being terrible at their jobs, and the police in A Simple Favour really have no idea what they’re doing, rather like Stephanie herself. The book may as well have only three characters, because no one else registers.
You can say this for Bell’s work: it is eminently readable, because you have to know what tomfoolery is going to happen next. This is better than a book with leaden prose and a terrible story, but Bell’s talent for invention trends towards the laughable rather than the legitimately enjoyable. This book contains possibly the single greatest paragraph ever committed to a novel, but it cannot be divulged here. If you get as far as 87%, you will be rewarded.
Paul Feig, commonly known for his comedies, has made A Simple Favour into a film which, based on the trailer, has been changed significantly. You would hope so, because the book that Darcey Bell presents here offers nowhere for its characters to hide. If subtlety seems to have died here, it’s okay: it will show up alive and well somewhere else, serving a better novel.
Post review, pre-publication update: A screening of A Simple Favour shows that Paul Feig leaned the hell in on this one. The changes, the tonal shift, the actual visible spine on the work means that something good has come of this whole fiasco.