Monday, January 11, 2016

The Girl On The Train: Unreliable Narrators and Hearts

“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.”

Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train debuted at number one on the New York Times fiction list in early 2015 and stayed there for thirteen weeks. By August, it had sold three million copies in the United States alone. Considering its domination in the UK market and its publication in thirty-four countries, three million is just the tip of the iceberg. A film starring Emily Blount will hit the big screen on October 7, 2016. Here is a brief introduction to the plot courtesy of

“The Girl on the Train” is a mystery and suspense novel by Paula Hawkins. It follows the lives of three women – Rachel, Anna, and Megan – and the events surrounding Megan’s murder, ultimately bringing the lives of the three women together. Each day, Rachel takes the train to work in London, heading past the town of Witney. There, she can see her old house, where her ex-husband, Tom, and his new wife, Anna, live, and she can also see the home of another married couple a few houses down. Rachel becomes endeared by this couple, whom Rachel nicknames Jess and Jason. They appear to have the perfect life, and Rachel is both jealous of, and happy for them. 

One day, she discovers that Jess is having an affair, and this enrages her. Rachel has no idea how someone could cheat on someone as seemingly perfect as Jason. When Jess – who turns out to be Megan Hipwell – goes missing, Rachel is sure that the man she saw cheating with Megan is the culprit. She thus involves herself in the investigation, going to great lengths to try to get to the bottom of things.

One of the things that has endeared critics is that The Girl On The Train uses an ‘unreliable narrator’ (ala Gone Girl) in such a way that readers are never quite certain if the first-person account they are reading is accurate. While critical review has been largely good, reader reviews are often more along the lines of “Meh. It’s been done before by better writers and with more compelling characters.” I tend to agree.

However, since the purpose of this blog is to focus more on worldviews than on the literary merit of the books being reviewed, I will focus on two of the narrators who stood out to me as thought-provoking characters.


Rachel is an alcoholic who lives a double life. She pretends to go to work every day even though she lost her job months before. She wakes up at times not knowing what she did. She can’t always separate fantasy from reality.

She was once happily married and living a good life, but when she and her husband, Tom, couldn’t get pregnant even with IVF, the relational center could not hold. She dolefully notes, “Nobody warned me it would break us. But it did. Or rather, it broke me, and then I broke us.” The breaking did not happen in a moment. It rarely does. This happened slowly, inevitably, overshadowing their relationship like the thunderclouds of a coming storm.
“How did I find myself here? I wonder where it started, my decline; I wonder at what point I could have halted it…maybe that was the moment when things started to go wrong, the moment when I imagined us not longer a couple, but a family; and after that, once I had that picture in my head, just the two of us could never be enough. Was it then that Tom started to look at me differently, his disappointment mirroring my own? After all he gave up for me, for the two of us to be together, I let him think that he wasn’t enough.”
They eventually divorce, and Rachel follows her declining trajectory.
“I felt isolated in my misery. I became lonely, so I drank a bit, and then a bit more, and then became lonelier, because no one likes being around a drunk. I lost and drank and I drank and I lost. I liked my job, but I didn’t have a glittering career, and even if I had, let’s be honest: women are still only really valued for two things – their looks and their role as mothers. I’m not beautiful, and I can’t have kids, so what does that make me? Worthless. I can’t blame all this for my drinking – I can’t blame my parents or my childhood, an abusive uncle or some terrible tragedy. It’s my fault. I was a drinker anyway – I’ve always liked to drink. But I did become sadder, and sadness gets boring after a while, for the sad person and for everyone around them. And then I went from being a drinker to being a drunk, and there’s nothing more boring than that.” 

Ms. Hawkins writes poignantly on behalf of a character whom she often makes unlikable. But that’s an appropriate tension, right? The despair in the lives of those caught in depression or addiction is a cause for both frustration and sympathy in those around them. We can’t overlook the impact of their choices; on the other hand, because we care, we want to stay invested so we can offer help and hope. I thought Ms. Hawkins navigated that tension well in the character of Rachel.


The more I learned about Megan, the more I empathized with her – not because of what she does, but because of the aching, restless, emptiness that lurks inside of her. Here is how she describes herself:
“Hollowness: that I understand. I’m starting to believe that there isn’t anything you can do to fix it. That’s what I’ve taken from the therapy sessions: the holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mold yourself through the gaps.”
Her solution has been to fill her life with men, married or single. Even as she does this, she recognizes that something is amiss.
“I have to keep things vague, jumble up all the men, the lovers and exes, but I tell myself that’s OK, because it doesn’t matter who they are. It matters how they make me feel. Stifled, restless, hungry. Why can’t I just get what I want? Why can’t they give it to me…If I can just learn how to hold on to this feeling, this one I’m having now – if I could just discover how to focus on this happiness, enjoy the moment, not wonder about where the next high is coming from – then everything will be all right.”
As she thinks of the current (and ultimately disastrous) affair she is in, she clarifies her motivation. “I didn’t want it to go anywhere. I just enjoyed feeling wanted; I liked the feeling of control. It was as simple and stupid as that. I didn’t want him to leave his wife; I just wanted him to want to leave her. To want me that much.”

Megan embodies the war inside, the interior conflict that rages inside those who want to be better people but feel trapped by who they are. Megan’s had a hard life, and not all of it was of her making. Yes, she leaves brokenness in her wake. Yes, she sees it and chooses it. And yet…. I liked her. My heart hurt for her. Of all the characters in the book, I wanted her to find health and hope.

At one point Megan tells her therapist, Kamal, that she can’t help the way she is. He replies, “You can help what you do, though.” He’s not offering her cheap self-help advice. He’s suggesting a hard path that is daunting but doable. Eventually, she decides to take his advice to heart and make a change. She thinks of all the things she had been: "child, rebellious teenager, runaway, whore, lover, bad mother, bad wife.” Her conclusion? “ I’m not sure if I can remake myself as a good wife, but a good mother – that I have to try.”

We live in a society that tends to believe that sexual self-expression is something of a holy grail, a sign that people are comfortable with themselves and their sexuality. In Megan, we don’t see a sexual free spirit full of freedom and fulfillment. We see sexual escapades fueled by emptiness, addiction, and selfish manipulation. That’s not necessarily true for everyone whose sexual choices mirror hers, of course. It is certainly true for some. Considering the popularity of the book, I wonder if it is reality for more people than we think.

* * * * * * * * * *

I read The Girl On The Train before I knew it was The Next Big Deal. It was interesting but not captivating, suspenseful but not surprising, and populated with characters in whom I had trouble investing. Having said that, I did appreciate how Ms. Hawkins described the inner lives of Rachel and Megan. The story is ordinary on some levels, but it is thought-provoking and insightful when it explores their hearts.

I suspect the movie will play up the more sensational twists and turns of the plot rather than taking the time to delve into that aspect. If so, that will be unfortunate. It was not only the best part, it was the only part that really mattered.

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