It’s not enough to be a gripping and jumpy novel. Often, the most successful stories are the ones that remind us of our darkest selves or make us revisit moments in our lives that we thought we had safely left in the past. Good novels make us regurgitate our experiences. We project the nadirs of our existence onto works of art, from a distance at first. If the writing is good and doesn’t distract, we will feel the narrative with every fiber of our bodies.
That’s what happened to me when reading The Girl on the Train though I presume not everyone will have the same visceral response as I had. I connected to these three women in ways I wished I hadn’t. I’ve been cheated on, but – to my utter dismay and embarrassment, I have also cheated. There was even once a time when I had so little self-respect and positioned myself as the other woman. I’ve been messed up from grief. I have felt the insecure need to cling onto a partner when I knew I was no longer welcomed, and – before I found yoga and meditation as tools of healing trauma – I engaged in destructive behaviors such as binge drinking to the point of blackouts.
I am by no means uncommon.
In fact, I bet ten bucks that Miss Hawkins has mixed parts of her own history into the narrative. I feel as though only a woman who has felt these kinds of pains has words to describe them and then weave them into a murder mystery. Of course this is all speculation, but that’s how I feel, and that’s how I know I read a book that was meant for my sensibilities. Though this wasn’t some literary genius work – not once did I have to pull out the dictionary to look up a meaning – I was engaged through my senses. I am reading the three main characters’ thoughts as they happen. I am experiencing the world through their lens as they perceive it. And for this trio of women, the world is murky and their perceptions are highly unreliable and questionable.
There’s Rachel, the drunk-ex wife and main protagonist pining over the life she once had with Tom, who left her for another hussy named Anna (narrator #2), had a baby with her and still lives in the house he decorated with Rachel, and Meghan (narrator #3), Anna’s and Tom’s neighbor down the street with a dubiously traumatic past, who goes missing. These three women are forged from archetypes that all of us have met before. Even if we have never been involved in a murder mystery, most of us can relate on some level. That’s what makes this book a blockbuster. We have women brooding, being moody, being dark, being far from the perfect Stepford wives everyone wants us to be. We have imperfect leads here, anti-heroes of the best kind. Some might hate this book, purely because they hate the portrayal of seemingly weak women. It’s not female power, they say, it illustrates and reinforces bitch characterizations that do us no good. I disagree. These women exist. I know, because I was once them. To see at them center stage of an entertaining thriller gives me courage to speak so frankly about my own past experiences with a lightness that should be afforded to all. When we can talk about our mistakes, we can make art with them. That is this post’s advice to storytellers. Take your problematic, doubtful deeds and use them as basis for exciting characters. There’s nothing so dark that it can’t be turned into light. It’s no surprise that Hollywood jumped at the chance to turn this piece into a movie (saving that disaster for another post).
Paula Hawkins churned out a fast paced thriller, exciting enough to make me want to come back for more. I look forward to reading Into the Water, her newly released bestseller.
Also published on Medium.
I really felt like this book was so-so, if not unlikeable. I was drawn to the first third of the book because I found the element of voyeurism to be an interesting approach for a mystery, suspense thriller. We can let our imagination draw up wonderful stories about the people around us that give us a negative sense of what our own lives are. But Rachel so unlikeable and unreliable as a narrator that she was too convenient for a mystery novel. She was always drunk or drawing incorrect conclusions that the “twist” didn’t really feel like a twist. I feel like if the book was positioned or delved into the psychology of wom(e)n who overlook the terrible qualities of men to find themselves in precarious situations, it might’ve been a more compelling novel. But it was trying to sell us this abduction-murder mystery and it felt manipulative and loose.
So I appreciated the darkness, but just felt like plot-wise Hawkins took us somewhere very uninteresting. I was actually angry enough after finishing the book that I can’t bring myself to watch the movie even though I am a tremendous fan of Emily Blunt and curious fan of Justin Theroux.
Now that you bring up plot, yes I totally agree with that. It was rather uninteresting and predictable to the point that I was almost able to guess how it was going to end. As mentioned, the book sat well with me because I found the characterizations hitting close to home. The unlikeable aspects of Rachel were maybe not as unlikeable to me personally. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!
Oh, and movie is horrible. More on that in a future post.
Yessss, some parts of The Girl On The Train were *so* intensely relatable! I’ve heard that opinion from a lot of other women as well, Hawkins has really tapped into something here. While I was reading it, I thought a lot about how slippery the mental-health slope is, and how easily I think I could slide into Rachel’s situation… chilling!!