When Nick Dunne thinks of his wife, Amy, he writes, he “always think[s] of her head.” It is “finely shaped” and unique, but though Nick would “know [his wife’s] head anywhere,” he has no idea what’s inside it. He often wishes he could “unspool” her brain—throughout the years they’ve been married, he’s wondered countless times the following questions: “What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”
In the opening lines of the novel, Nick’s narration reveals that not only does he not know who his wife is—or what she’s thinking or feeling—but that he also harbors dark and slightly macabre ideas about how to find out. In the twisting whodunit tale that’s about to unfold, casting doubt on her characters’ motivations and displaying their darkest impulses allows Gillian Flynn to keep the mystery alive.
Nick’s eyes open at 6:00 a.m. on the dot. Nick is not usually an early riser, and hardly ever gets up before 9:00 a.m. His life is “alarmless” since he and Amy moved to Nick’s hometown of Carthage, Missouri, from New York City. Amy and Nick, both writers at print magazines, lost their jobs in the recession and moved back to Missouri two years ago to rent a tacky “Nouveau Riche” mini-mansion after Nick’s mother (Maureen) fell ill. Both Nick and Amy still mourn the loss of their jobs, and Amy especially, having never lived anywhere but New York, resents Nick for dragging her to the Midwest.
By providing some backstory about the state of Nick and Amy’s lives, Flynn shows that they have recently been humiliated and uprooted by the 2008 recession. The tension in their marriage the recent change has created will be important to note as the events of the novel begin to unfold.
Nick, however, was happy to move home to the Midwest just to have something to do. When his twin sister, Margo—or “Go,” as he affectionately calls her—called to tell him that their mother (Maureen) had developed cancer and, absent the care of their detached and deteriorating father (Bill), would soon die, Nick “almost cried with relief” in spite of the fact that he knew Amy knew little and cared less about his mother and his hometown alike.
This passage establishes Nick as someone who always needs something to do—and who would rather prioritize abating his own restlessness than making sure his wife, Amy, is happy.
As Nick watches the sunrise, thinks about the day ahead of him. He hears Amy downstairs banging around in the kitchen, making breakfast. Today is their five-year wedding anniversary. Nick, barefoot and in pajamas, makes his way downstairs. As he stands in the doorway and watches her cook, oblivious to his presence, he notices her humming and thinks back to when they first started dating. Amy, a “botcher of lyrics,” always got the words to songs wrong—but always had a reasoning behind her misinterpretations. Looking back, Nick thinks “there’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.” When Amy looks up and greets Nick with a charming “Hello, handsome,” he feels “bile and dread” rise in his throat.
The idyllic morning—a milestone anniversary, a quiet sunrise, a beautiful breakfast being prepared—doesn’t inspire in Nick the reaction one might expect. As he comes downstairs to see his wife cooking for him, he feels “cold” and full of “dread”—not to mention made physically ill by the simple sight of Amy. It’s clear that something deeper is going on beneath the placid surface of Nick and Amy’s marriage.
Nick is late getting to work. Two years ago, he and Go opened a bar together—a dream they’ve shared since their teen years. They borrowed eighty thousand dollars from Amy to do so—a sum that was once “nothing” to her, but after the recession was “almost everything.” Nick promised Amy he’d pay her back, with interest, not wanting to be the kind of man who borrowed money from his wife. Nick saw the decision as a smart, businesslike one—one that would generate an income for them both while Amy thought about what she wanted to do next.
Flynn gets even deeper into the nooks and crannies of Nick and Amy’s marriage by showing that Amy is Nick’s benefactor in many ways—he needs her for her money, and she seems to willingly give it.
Go and Nick’s bar is on a street corner, and the interior is made up of “haphazard, patchwork” details. The bar is called “The Bar,” a name Nick and Go think singles them out as “clever New Yorkers”—Margo had lost her job in Manhattan just a year before Nick lost his. The Bar, like the rest of Carthage, is directly on the Mississippi River; the town often floods, and as Nick arrives at work, he looks down at the “strong ropy currents” and sees a long, single-file line of men walking parallel to the water along the banks. The men make Nick feel “seen”—his stomach twists and he rushes inside, desperate for a drink.
The end of the first chapter focuses on Nick’s intense feelings of vulnerability as he steps out into the world on the morning of his anniversary. As the mystery begins to unfold, Nick’s paranoia and guilt will keep the tension related to his true feelings about his wife steadily flowing and winding on, just like the Mississippi.