Margot McGovern reviews The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
I wasn’t going to review Paula Hawkins‘ The Girl on the Train. Pointing out the myriad problems with poorly written pulp fiction is akin to shooting fish in a barrel and makes me sound like a pompous git with a giant bookmark up my arse to boot. Books like this are written to provide a few minutes’ escape on the train to work, to make a long flight pass more quickly, to distract troubled minds, to offer fantasies when our own imaginations fail. The whole point is to switch your brain off. Don’t take it too seriously. Just relax. I get it.
And I thought, fuck it. Big international bestsellers like The Girl on the Train are exactly the type of books we should—must—make the subject of scrutiny because, whether we like it or not, these books have influence. And I gotta tell you, the problems I have with this book go way beyond lazy plotting and clunky dialogue.
So all aboard for a good old rant! Before we begin our journey, a little housekeeping: the following word spew contains unchecked book rage and SPOILERS. If The Girl on the Train is on your ‘to read’ or ‘currently reading’ pile, now is the time to stop scrolling and amuse yourself with some of our more measured reviews.
For this rant I shall be using the open shit sandwich method in which one starts by looking for something nice to say and then, pleasantries accounted for, moves swiftly on to examining what the hell went wrong.
So, nice things. The premise is an enticing one: girl on train peers into backyards, sees something she shouldn’t and thrilling suspense ensues. It holds all the promise of a Highsmith. And, initially, I liked Rachel, the girl on the train—an unlikely detective struggling to get her shit together, who just the right amount of crazy and in waaaaay over her head. For the first little while, I was flippin’ those pages eager as anyone.
But as the drama amped up, my suspended disbelief guttered then died altogether. Seriously, take a second to think about what happens in this story. Rachel kidnapping Anna’s baby for reasons she herself doesn’t understand! Abusive husbands! Adulterous spouses! A baby killer! A secret pregnancy! Burner phones! (The fact that no one ever seems to answer their phones.) Blackouts! Time jumps! Fat shaming! Can we talk about this? No! I’m going to smash you in the head with a rock then bury your battered corpse in the woods! …And all this before the climax. On a scale of plausible to reality TV, The Girl on the Train is off the chart.
Speaking of the ‘let’s-have-a-cup-of-tea-while-Tom-twirls-his-moustache’ climax, what was that? Unless mnemosyne deceives me, while Tom delivers his pages-long his manifesto, Why I Murdered the Neighbour, Anna calmly changes and feeds her baby and at one point wanders off upstairs to fantasise about how great it would be if Tom also wasted Rachel. Surely I have that wrong? *flips back through book* Nope, all that really did get past an editor. An ‘utterly bizarre facsimile of reality’ indeed.
Honestly though, poor plotting is low hanging fruit, so I won’t linger. Let’s talk narrators. I’ll admit that I was unfairly sceptical about Rachel’s unreliability before I even started reading. (Side note: you can find some of Lectito‘s favourite unreliable narrators here.) I’ve seen an amnesiac narrator done well, but usually only when memory loss plays into the character’s development (E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is an excellent example). Mostly though, it’s a super lazy way for the author to withhold information. But in the case of The Girl on the Train, it works quite well to heighten the suspense and let the reader have a go at filling in the blanks before Rachel does (see, I can be nice). What I didn’t like about any of Hawkins’ three narrators was their bitterness and malice. To quote Queen T-Fey, ‘There’s been some girl on girl crime here’. Given the circumstances, Rachel, Anna and Megan are never going to be BFFs, but the way they speak about themselves and each other makes Regina George look like Miss Congeniality. Personal favourite quotes include:
If you want someone badly enough, morals (and certainly professionalism) don’t come into it. You’ll do anything to have them. – Megan
I mean, if you look at the two of us, side by side, there isn’t a man on earth who would pick her over me. And that’s without even going into all her issues. – Anna
I forgot what I was supposed to be feeling. I ignored the fact that at the very best, Jess is nothing but a figment of my imagination, and at the worst, Jess is not nothing, she is Megan—she is dead, a body battered and left to rot. Worse than that: I didn’t forget. I didn’t care. I didn’t care because I’ve started to believe what they’re saying about her. Did I, just for the briefest of moments, think she got what was coming to her, too? – Rachel
He isn’t seeing Rachel behind my back! The idea is ridiculous. She might have been attractive once—she was quite striking when he met her, I’ve seen pictures: all huge dark eyes and generous curves—but now she’s just run to fat. – Anna. Fat shaming. Lovely. Because you’re only as good as you look.
I’m not going to lie—I’m glad she’s gone. Good riddance. – Anna, prior to learning that Megan has had an affair with Tom and now carries his child, (as in when Anna still thinks Megan is the lady from down the street who used to babysit).
The thought that she and I—fat, sad Rachel and I—are now in the same boat is unbearable. – Anna. More unbearable might be the fact that your husband is a two-time adulterer and a murderer, IMHO. But whatever; you go, girl.
And the pièce de résistance:
I miss being a mistress. – Anna. Because their’s no sport quite like stealing another gal’s man.
How can a reader bring themselves to care about a character who says things like: ‘I willed her to come along one day, to see him with me, to know in an instant that he was no longer hers.’? If the three of them had fallen into a pit of hungry hell bears, I would have been cool with that. At least it would have been entertaining. Now, I’m not an idiot. I know perfect sisterhood is a utopian dream that ain’t going to happen anytime soon, and even if it did, it wouldn’t make for good fiction. What’s upsetting about this particular bitchfest is that the hatred these women feel for each other really boils down to their relationships with men. They define themselves by these relationships—their whole identities are structured around the men in their lives and how these men perceive them—and so other women can only ever be competition. A threat. It’s toxic. Sure, Hawkins makes a last ditch effort to flip this in the final couple of pages, but it’s way too little, way too late.
Just so we’re super clear, I don’t believe the feminist mission is hurt by less-than-perfectly-virtuous female characters. Women are flawed and complex, and our fictional counterparts should reflect that. Rachel’s alcoholism, her lack of self-control, her submission to abusive men—all have the makings of an interesting character, if Hawkins had troubled to round her out—give her a detailed backstory that showed the roots of her weaknesses—and if Anna and Megan hadn’t also been, in their own ways, equally weak and flat.
The misogyny here isn’t intentional, it’s insidious and thus far more dangerous. I don’t believe Hawkins set out to write a book to send the subliminal message that womenfolk are by nature irrational, hysterical and bat-shit CRAZY. There are even moments when Hawkins gives the (entirely superficial) appearance of pushing a feminist agenda, such as when Anna and Rachel finally come to a truce over Tom’s haemorrhaging corpse or in the occasional statement that appears to call attention to the patriarchal view of women as little more than sex objects and baby factories: ‘…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.’ (At least I presume this kind of statement is made with a knowing look to the reader.) But, in fact, all such statements do is draw attention away from Hawkins’ failure to realise her women as rounded characters with desires and interests beyond their babies and the bedroom. And let’s not forget that most vital of facts: it’s the ‘slut’, the bad mother, who dies and the submissive ‘good wives’ who triumph.
The thing is, it’s totally possible to take all the elements I’ve thoroughly criticised here—unreliable narrator, jealous bitch fights, scandalous affairs, emotionally abusive husbands, a dead whore, illegitimate pregnancy, murder—and create a thrilling, feminist-friendly page turner. It’s called Rebecca. If you haven’t read it, do yourself the favour.
Look, sure, like me you probably just picked up The Girl on the Train for a bit of relaxation. What does it really matter if it isn’t politically correct? I believe we deserve better. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, or Daphne du Maurier, but let’s think about what we help put on the bestseller lists and what message those books send out. When we dismiss a book like this as ‘just beach reading’ imply that representing women as flat and dependant, as sex objects and harpies is not serious business. When we say ‘don’t over think it’, the subtext is ‘don’t think’.
There you have it. Rant over. Claws retracted. Onward and upward we go.
If you, like me, took issue with The Girl on the Train, but were down with the general premise, you might enjoy these books instead:
|Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier||Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty||The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling|
|Tampa by Alissa Nutting||The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith||We Were Liars by E. Lockhart|
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