Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Girl After Girl

Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train has been compared to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and you can pretty much immediately see why.  (I'm going to try to walk you through it with minimal spoilers, but you know, be warned.)  You've got your multiple unreliable narrators, you've got your cast of intensely dislikable people, you've got your missing person mystery that keeps unfolding into a more complicated and darker tale.  The moving parts are in place.

So you've got Rachel, who rides the commuter train to London and back every day, and at a stopping place on the track, she has a favorite couple she watches, on their deck or through their windows.  A harmless little fantasy, though perhaps she's got more invested in these strangers than it strictly normal.  It makes a little more sense when we learn that they live just a few houses away from where she used to live with her husband, and where he still lives with his new wife.  No wonder she likes to focus on someone else's house when the train stalls there.

But Rachel's life, we find out, is kind of a mess--she drinks, she has blackouts, she harasses her ex's new wife. And when Neighbor Lady goes missing, Rachel worms her way into the investigation.

Then you meet the woman she's been watching, Megan.  You find out about her "perfect" marriage and her husband and her rather run-of-the-mill but not-quite-right life.  Her secrets start to unfold, bit by bit. Her timeline runs earlier, interspersing her life over the past year with Rachel's "present day."

And there's her neighbor, Anna, who is Rachel's replacement in her old home.  She provides a counterpoint (an objective one?) to Rachel's blackouts and emotional confusion. 

So: multiple points of view.  The present and the past intertwine, and the story unfolds as we learn what secrets the narrator's been keeping from us.  Gone Girl, right?

Gone Girl was better, though. I'm not sure I can articulate why, but I can tell you a few things I've noticed here.  One, for example, is that part of the mystery hinges on missing memories.  It's not that we can't know what happened or find reality, it's that key information is hidden from us--and the character--because she can't remember.  And I don't think it's a big reveal to tell you that things start to resolve because she eventually does start to remember things.  Missing memories feel like kind of a copout to begin with, but when spontaneously getting them back (by, presumably, trying really hard to remember?) is the resolution--well, it's kind of deux ex machina, if you know what I mean.

Also, here's a big one that's bugging me: again, lots and lots of characters who are unlikable to varying degrees and with varying kinds of icky personalities.  But all three of these women are driven by the notion of motherhood--specifically, having a baby.  Rachel couldn't get pregnant; Megan doesn't want to have a baby; Anna has a child around whom her life focuses.  This book is about all the ugly, messed up ways that women obsess over babies and having them or not having them. 

It just kind of makes me want to throw my hands up in the air.  I mean, if all three of them were related to each other--if it was one pregnancy/child that the whole plot revolved around--maybe?  But it's three different women with different off-putting obsessions with babies.  And you know, I'm a mom, and I am the one at the party who is holding the baby so the parents can go do whatever they want--I lurve babies as much as the next person, and I love my son and have my own complicated relationship with parenthood.  That's not a boring topic. 

But being obsessed with the concept of babies--with the idea of getting pregnant, with the vague notion of motherhood that doesn't have to do with an actual kid--and filling your book with people whose brains (ugly, scheming, weird brains) revolve around that feels kind of reductive.  Like, not one woman in this story has some other motivation?  This isn't a book about parenting or parenthood; it's kind of about sex and suburbia and secrets, but for some reason that's all boiled down to getting pregnant. Not adopting, not parenting, not forming a specific relationship with this little person who is your family now and whom you must both command and obey.  Nope.  Getting pregnant.

It's not that this overwhelms the book.  But it's there, and it feels reductive to me.

And also?  Once they start giving the hints we needed, the right pieces of information, I immediately figured out what happened.  Withholding information till late in the game is how mysteries work, but the very best mysteries give you the information but make it hard to put together.  This one was somewhere in between.

So, not as impressive as Gillian Flynn.  But hey, I'm reading it fast and furious.  And Rachel is a very specific portrait of a person who can tell you every single thing she's doing wrong, even as she does it, again and again.  She sees the car wreck she's living in, but she can't steer away.  That is actually pretty fascinating to watch, and probably the most well-crafted part of the book.  If you ever wonder how bad decisions happen, Rachel's your go-to girl.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go read the last 10%.

1 comment:

Kris said...

That's pretty much how I felt about it. Another author trying to be Gillian Flynn by throwing all the suspense novel tropes she can fit in a chapter at you. But ultimately it was just pretty boring. The most fascinating thing about the book to me was apparently that in England you can buy G&T in a can! Not that I was into G&T when I lived there, and I'm sure they're not great, but still...