I’ve been thinking a lot about The Girl on the Train and the ways that we write about women.
Touted as the new Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train has been everywhere here in the UK for the past year. It’s a major bestseller and as such, it has been featured prominently in every single bookstore I have walked into lately. The hype started to die out but with the recent paperback release and the upcoming movie adaptation with Emily Blunt it got a second wind. I managed to avoid it for a while – mostly because I freaking hated Gone Girl so that comparison was not very appealing to me – but eventually succumbed because I really enjoy psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators. What can I say, it is a weakness.
I ended up liking The Girl on the Train – with a few misgivings. I definitely enjoyed it much more than Gone Girl although my reservations are almost the same about both books.
I wanted to preface this by saying how much I like unlikable, flawed, difficult female characters. That was never my problem with Gone Girl. My problem with that book was the misogyny disguised as hipster feminism and the way that the narrative supported every single characters’ misogynistic view of women. I had other problems with it too but my anger at the novel was mostly fuelled by the aforementioned issue.
Enter The Girl on the Train. The eponymous character is Rachel Watson, a 30-something alcoholic who lost everything – her marriage to Tom, her house, her job – due to her drinking. From her first-person narrative, we are slowly introduced to her life and how she got to that point. Every day she travels on the train to London to a job that doesn’t exist, sipping gin and tonic on the way back, a pretence that she has to keep so that her increasingly impatient flatmate won’t kick her out. Every day, the train route passes in front of her house, her house where her ex-husband still lives with his new wife (and former mistress) and baby. To torture herself even more, she always looks at the couple next door and imagines their perfect marriage and their perfect lives in their perfect house (that looks so much like her own old house).
Rachel is a character heavy with loss and guilt: for not being able to conceive a child, for having destroyed her marriage, for having done things she can’t remember. When she binge drinks, she has blackouts. She knows she harasses Tom, his new wife and even once, has even threatened their baby – although she barely recalls those.
And then one night, the perfect wife she so loves to watch goes missing. On that same night, Rachel drank a lot but she knows she was around their house. She also knows she woke up bruised and bloody the day after, following a fight with Tom the night before. But because she was there she becomes a material witness – even though a highly unreliable one – and this feeds into Rachel’s lack of self-esteem fuelling a spiral of self-destructive behaviour.
Rachel is an unreliable narrator because of those things she can’t remember. She is an unreliable narrator because of the things she believes about herself. Thus the narrative becomes unreliable because it feeds off Rachel’s viewpoint.
I’ve read reviews decrying Rachel as an unlikeable character. I found her not only extremely sympathetic but also agonizingly poignant and heart-breaking. Her portrayal as an alcoholic is painful. Her entire arc is painful but ultimately empowering as she moves forward, attempts to change her life and not only recovers some of her missing memories but also faces a different interpretation of them – in that way, she also recover a truer sense of self. The latter is so very important because it unveils the truth about her marriage and the truth about her ex-husband. It shows another level of unreliability in the narration: the “good” husband is, all of a sudden, not good at all. In fact, his emotional abuse was so insidious, Rachel couldn’t tell he was abusive. It is an excruciatingly convincing, lifelike side of this novel.
Had it been all about Rachel, it would have been a fantastic novel.
But Rachel is not alone in her narrative. A few chapters into the novel, we go back in time to start introducing a viewpoint from the missing woman, Megan. Soon, the chapters alternate between Rachel and Megan, whose timeline builds-up to the present time to meet Rachel’s. It’s clever, competent storytelling that builds up tension nicely. But then a few chapters after that we get Anna’s viewpoint – Anna is Rachel’s ex-husband new wife. Her narrative doesn’t add a lot to the novel and I’d argue that it only serves to reinforce its problems.
Because you see, Rachel, Megan and Anna not only sound the same, they also have the same character motivation: men and babies. Megan had a Dark Past: she ran away with a much older man when she was a teenager and while high on drugs ended up getting her baby killed. Her life since then has been Dark, Mysterious and full of Secrets Lovers. Her husband really wants a child but her traumatic experience with babies has kept her from wanting one. Until she gets pregnant with her lover’s baby and all of a sudden, she really wants this. And that’s what gets her killed. Anna used to be the exciting lover until she got pregnant and became The Wife. She loves her life but has a secret fear that she is not as exciting anymore to her husband.
None of these women have jobs or a career. They don’t have friends. Well, Rachel does have one friend, her incredibly supportive flatmate… who is only available when her boyfriend is not around. Their arcs revolve around the men in their lives, for better or worse and their storylines don’t stand on their own. I loved Rachel’s storyline and I think that everything around it makes sense but by compounding her story with Megan’s and Anna’s, in the exact same way… well. That’s a huge problem. The women almost become interchangeable.
The charitable interpretation here is that this is the point of the novel: that these women got entangled with this one terrible man and he destroyed their lives. But again, this takes a story that is narrated by three women and reframes it completely through the main male character’s arc.
But I do think that is a far too charitable reading. What I see is more of a pattern that just serves to reinforce an infuriating misogynistic narrative that women don’t have lives of their own. That women can’t be friends with each other because they are always in competition. That they don’t exist outside the male gaze. That what they are is always in relation to, in spite of.
The ending might mitigate this as the women take back their power (with violence, I don’t know how I feel about that beyond an initial HELL YEAH) but I don’t believe it is nearly enough to counteract a persistent narrative that is so insidious and harmful.
Would I recommend this book? Probably, as it’s a fairly competent thriller and it’s not as enraging as Gone Girl. That’s always a plus.