I know what you’re thinking. “Someone has hacked Shelf Improvement.” How else to explain this post about a book you’ve actually heard of while it’s on the bestseller’s lists?
Fret not, I’ve not gone commercial on you. Every now and then I like to climb out of my ivory tower and pull from the common reader’s bookshelf.
“The Girl on the Train” is this year’s answer to “Gone Girl,” the huge selling thriller of last year. That’s how it’s being marketed, at least. To a point, it is: They’re both thrillers written by women. They both feature female protagonists with, well, issues. They both have the word “girl” in the title, and, at some point, there’s a murder. I would add that both novels are also misandrist in nature. (See, you didn’t waste your time reading this post, you learned something: “Misandry, the hatred of male human beings.” It’s the opposite of misogyny.)
“The Girl on the Train” is about a pathetic drunk named Rachel who takes the train to London every day to work. It stops regularly at a malfunctioning signal, where she can see into the backyard of several houses. One of those houses is that of Megan and Scott, one of those beautiful couples who seem to have everything. Jealous, Rachel builds up a life for this couple that she doesn’t, and may never, have. She loves this couple for that fantasy life, until Rachel sees something that makes it fall apart. Then Megan disappears mysteriously and Rachel has information that may solve the case.
Told alternately from the point of view of Rachel, in present day, and Megan, whose story starts a year earlier, we get a clear picture of two very troubled women who turned to flawed men for stability. We also hear from Anna, who’s married to Rachel’s ex, and who plays an important part in this plot.
The book is filled with flawed people, which makes for a realistic thriller. No one is a hero. Every one mucks things up for their own reasons, some good, some not-so-good. I like that the characters are flawed, we all are and it keeps the book grounded in a way that makes a reader think: Hey, this could happen. These characters will frustrate the reader (in particular, Rachel’s half-hearted attempts to stay off the sauce), but they behave in a way that’s honest, which is always a good thing.
But in making everyone flawed, author Paula Hawkins also makes them all unlikable. Good thing the plot was so compelling or I would have thrown the book aside thinking, “Who cares who did it as long as some of these people die horrible deaths at the end.”
That’s flip and I don’t mean to be. The book is good, it’s a first-class way to pass a cold weekend.
But that’s all it is, a great diversion. There’s not much meat, despite what critics may want to say. When people started crediting “Gone Girl” as being an indictment on marriage, I couldn’t help but sneer. It isn ‘t. If anything, it’s a warning about getting involved with a psychopath. Spoiler alert: Don’t.
Now, back to the misandry and, just so I don’t get yelled at, I’ll put a serious SPOILER ALERT here. I get that female characters in books can hate men, it gives them motivation. Sometimes that hate is justified, sometimes it isn’t. They learn along the way and everyone is better off in the end. But in “Girl on the Train” every man is a shit. Every. Man. The women aren’t much better, but Hawkins wants us to believe they were made petty and hateful and mercurial and lonely by the actions of the men in their lives. I’m crying foul. Men aren’t responsible for today’s women’s bad choices. That this novel and “Gone Girl” place the blame for the tragedies told in them at the feet of men is especially interesting because they are written by women and that women readers made them huge best sellers. A male writer, creating these characters, might reasonably have been accused of misogyny.
A male reader is justified in coming to completely the opposite conclusion.