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The Girl on the Train
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Archived VBC Selections > The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins - VBC December 2015

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message 1: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Rachel, the principal narrator of Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train,” is a miserable character – that is, miserable in the truest sense of the word. Everything in her life has gone sour. Her husband has left her for another woman (a woman who has borne him a child, as Rachel could not), she’s taken to drowning her sorrows in alcohol, and now, not surprisingly, she’s lost her job. In recent weeks Rachel has embarrassed herself more than once, blacking out, finding excuses to call her ex, showing up at his house uninvited, and now she’s too ashamed to let the friend with whom she’s staying know that she’s been fired. So, she continues to commute into London as usual, riding the train past her old neighborhood, where ex-husband Tom and his new wife Anna now live in Rachel’s old house, visible from the tracks. As if to punish herself further, Rachel has become fascinated with the life of another young couple she sometimes glimpses from the train, a seemingly golden and loving pair who live a few doors down from Tom and Anna. Rachel calls them Jason and Jess, and she imagines for them the sort of happy marriage that she was denied.
One day, though, Rachel looks out the train window to see Jess (whose real name, we discover in time, is Megan) kissing another man. Then Jess disappears, a body is found, and Rachel thinks that she may have seen something relative to the case. She tries to help, but she’s hardly the sort of witness the police find credible…and the victim bears a striking resemblance to Anna, the woman who took Tom away from Rachel. Can Rachel be sure of what she’s seen, or done? Can the reader? Indeed, with three unreliable narrators, Anna, Megan, and Rachel herself, can we be sure of anything?
You may not like the characters in this book, all of whom have plenty of baggage and secrets to hide, but chances are you’ll find it hard to put down. It’s a compelling read, with an ending that I’m pretty sure you won’t see coming.
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Judging from the number of books that feature them (“Rebecca” and “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” come to mind) we seem to like unreliable narrators – why do you think that is? Who among the three narrators of this book do you trust the most, and why?


Lenore | 1078 comments When we first began to read LRK’s Folly, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I can read a whole book told from the point of view of a crazy person.” But in fairness to LRK, whose Mary Russell books shine so brightly in my universe, I decided to give it a few chapters, and the crazy person became likeable because she was trying to cure herself from craziness, and doing something interesting as a form of therapy. And soon enough she met some characters who were interesting and not crazy, and she gradually became less crazy herself and then, (view spoiler) So, having learned from that experience, I thought I’d give Paula Hawkins the benefit of the doubt.

At least for me, this was a big mistake. It turns out there is not one crazy narrator, but two – or maybe, depending on how you feel about Anna, three. And they’re not very likeably crazy. Their unreliability is the least of their problems. Rachel is a self-pitying and self-important drunk. Megan is emotionally stunted and unbelievably demanding. And Anna is selfish and a hysteric. They are three of the most unattractive characters I’ve ever met – in their own, different, ways, almost as unattractive as the bad guy. And the people who aren’t either the narrators or the bad guy aren’t much more pleasant. I mean, I know we all have faults, but this crowd seems excessive, faultwise.

I’m not sure why I persevered and finished the book, but it’s been awhile since I got so little enjoyment out of a mystery novel. I realize that serious literature – and I think mystery novels often are serious literature – can’t always have wonderful heroes and heroines. But this seemed just over the top with unattractive people, almost misanthropic.

Sorry, fellow VBCers, I just had to vent.


message 3: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Lenore wrote: "When we first began to read LRK’s Folly, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I can read a whole book told from the point of view of a crazy person.” But in fairness to LRK, whose Mary Russell boo..."

Hey, Lenore, that's part of the fun of it! I have now read the book twice (a second time to refresh my memory) and on the second reading was struck, as you were, by the fact that none of the women are very likable. That being said, I did see some rehabilitation in Rachel, and felt that the scenario she built for "Jess and Jason" showed the better person she wanted to be (and perhaps at the end, was moving towards). Megan at least had a trauma in her past that explained some of her erratic behavior. I guess had the least sympathy for Anna, who seems an unpleasant, unethical person from start to finish!
I did like the concept of the glimpse into people's houses from a passing train - it really is a metaphor for life. So often we see the shiny outside of people and imagine their lives to be something entirely different from the reality.
Do we think we have to admire or like at least one character in a book in order to enjoy it?


Lenore | 1078 comments Merrily wrote: "...we seem to like unreliable narrators – why do you think that is?..."

... Do we think we have to admire or like at least one character in a book in order to enjoy it?


All narrators are unreliable. [Crotchety trial lawyer persona appears.] If you read research on memory formation, you learn that our brains are not cameras that record what's happening, but rather -- influenced by perception and bias -- spotty-coverage vacuums of impressions that get melded together to form a memory, which can then be unconsciously altered in the retelling. Further, because we don't expect to see the unusual, we may not observe what is most important about it. And then, of course, we may consciously alter the narrative in the telling, whether to make it more palatable (or useful) to ourselves or to others. Trial lawyers will tell you that eyewitness testimony is the most unreliable evidence, and juries apparently (at least subconsciously) agree, as they are demonstrably more likely to believe the witness who has documentary or physical evidence of some kind to support his/her testimony.

(Parenthetically, Robert Heinlein made great use of this problem of unreliable narrators in Stranger in a Strange Land, in which he invented the profession of "Fair Witness," described succinctly by Wikipedia as "an individual trained to observe events and report exactly what he or she sees and hears, making no extrapolations or assumptions.")

Of course, some narrators are more unreliable than others. Being subject to alcoholic blackouts certainly diminishes one's reliability. But I think one reason unreliable narrators are so attractive to us because they are the most realistic. (I think even Mary Russell is an unreliable narrator to some degree.)

As to whether we have to admire or like at least one character in order to enjoy a book, that's clearly a question of personal taste. But I think my real problem is not that I have to like or admire someone, but rather that I'm not enjoying myself if I dislike every single character, and that was certainly the case here.


message 5: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Lenore wrote: "Merrily wrote: "...we seem to like unreliable narrators – why do you think that is?..."

... Do we think we have to admire or like at least one character in a book in order to enjoy it?

All narra..."

That's true, Lenore, and Mary Russell is definitely an unreliable narrator, most notably in LOCK. I think perhaps the difference in our reading of fiction today is that we accept the existence of the unreliable narrator more readily. I was thinking about "Jane Eyre" in that respect. Jane is certainly an unreliable narrator in the sense that for a large part of the book, what she is seeing, hearing and telling us is way off from the reality of what is. But somehow in my youthful readings of the book I would never have thought of her an unreliable, because she believes she's telling us the truth (I know, that doesn't make sense). Of course, the challenge in "Girl on a Train" is that Rachel doesn't have a clue as to what the Truth is, in the past, present or future.
I guess I came to like Rachel, who was persistent in her efforts to ferret out the truth even if her methods were not particularly wise. I would say I liked her in the same way that I liked Scarlett O'Hara - I admired her for her intrepidness, but wouldn't necessarily want to have her in my life if she were a real person!


message 6: by Margaret (new)

Margaret | 128 comments I find it dismaying to find, and accept, that most of the clear memories of my long life are constructs, probably not what happened. I often took my mother to visit her 2 sisters, all in their 80s. On the way home she would say, indignantly, "They're lying! It wasn't like that at all!"


message 7: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Margaret wrote: "I find it dismaying to find, and accept, that most of the clear memories of my long life are constructs, probably not what happened. I often took my mother to visit her 2 sisters, all in their 80s...."

Margaret, I think that's true of many of us! Sometimes I have to pause and think "Did that really happen, or did someone just tell me about it?" That's why I wasn't all that upset about the Brian Williams kerfluffle!
I was interested in Rachel's statement in the book (which I guess is true) that in an alcoholic blackout it's not that you can't remember, it's that your mind doesn't form memories at all. I just saw an interview on TV with someone who is fighting alcoholism, and he said he had absolutely no memory of several incidents that would, under normal conditions, be something you'd never forget. Scary. You can understand why Rachel might fear that she had indeed done something awful.


message 8: by Lenore (last edited Dec 05, 2015 09:28PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lenore | 1078 comments A very interesting article on the unreliability of memory: http://tinyurl.com/pz6nevg - from the point of view of someone who teaches memoir writing!


message 9: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Lenore wrote: "A very interesting article on the unreliability of memory: http://tinyurl.com/pz6nevg - from the point of view of someone who teaches memoir writing!"

Thanks, Lenore, will enjoy reading it!


message 10: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Throwing out a question to those of you who've had the time to read the book during this busy season. Who among the three narrators of this book do you trust the most, and why? They're all unreliable, but is there one that you think is closer to seeing the truth than the others?

In some ways, Rachel is an unlikeable, unsympathetic character who would probably be extremely trying to deal with in real life. In the book, however, I found myself on her side and wanting her to pull herself together. How does the author enlist our sympathy for Rachel without working overmuch to make her likable? Or perhaps you don't think she's sympathetic at all!


message 11: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Lenore wrote: "A very interesting article on the unreliability of memory: http://tinyurl.com/pz6nevg - from the point of view of someone who teaches memoir writing!"

That was indeed an excellent article, Lenore. I was in a class once where the professor did a similar exercise and of course, the results were the same. Our memories really are tricky and easily influenced! And of course, alcohol and other drugs make that even worse, as Rachel demonstrates.


Eleanor Kuhns (goodreadscomeleanor_kuhns) | 28 comments My take away: don't drink. Maybe Rachel would have figured out the puzzle earlier if she hadn't been wasted all the time.
As far as the narrators, I liked Anna the least. I found her an opportunist. I felt that Rachel, as troubled and unsympathetic as she is, had more of a moral center than Anna. I am still thinking about Megan. I am conflicted. She did try to do the right thing at the end.
I also found it disturbing that the men were so untrustworthy and awful. Not that I found them unrealistic, I just felt (maybe naively) that not all men are bad.


message 13: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Eleanor wrote: "My take away: don't drink. Maybe Rachel would have figured out the puzzle earlier if she hadn't been wasted all the time.
As far as the narrators, I liked Anna the least. I found her an opportunist..."


Eleanor, I agree, I certainly don't think that all men are like the ones depicted in this story. It seems as if Megan's first love was just a immature jerk, and her husband was so out of tune with her real feelings - although in a way she had been playing a part for his benefit. And I still really can't figure out the psychiatrist! Anna struck me as someone who was pathologically self-centered - she saw what she wanted and took it, and then at the end she had no hesitation about getting herself out of the situation in a rather extreme way. She certainly never demonstrated any guilt over what she'd done to Rachel. I guess I felt sorriest for Megan who was pre-disposed to be a victim - as you say, Rachel made a bad situation worse by turning to drink!


message 14: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
A brief interview with Paula Hawkins, author of "The Girl on the Train," that you might enjoy. I didn't realize that it was going to be a movie!

http://www.ew.com/article/2015/12/12/...


Eleanor Kuhns (goodreadscomeleanor_kuhns) | 28 comments One of the things I found interesting in this book is the difference between Rachel's fantasy of the lives of Jason and Jess and the truth behind Scott and Megan's lives. Rachel was so miserable she wanted to see someone's happy golden life and of course the reality was far different. I think we all like to imagine someone else's life being more fun or wonderful. A form of magical thinking maybe.
I agree that Anna was pathologically self-centered. She, more than Rachel, was a better fit for the awful Tom.
I'm just astonished that no one sensed the reality behind Tom's mask.


message 16: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Eleanor wrote: "One of the things I found interesting in this book is the difference between Rachel's fantasy of the lives of Jason and Jess and the truth behind Scott and Megan's lives. Rachel was so miserable sh..."

Eleanor, good points - so often I think we imagine that other people's lives to be better, more exciting, happier than ours, especially when we're at a low point. And of course, we can never really know the reality.
As to Tom, I think Rachel's fantasy about Jess and Jason may tell us something about all the women in the story, really - they were either so self-involved, so wounded, or so wrapped up in a fantasy that they all made Tom what they wanted him to be, rather than seeing him for what he was. You could say in a way that they were all on the same train!


Eleanor Kuhns (goodreadscomeleanor_kuhns) | 28 comments Good point


Robin | 16 comments Excellent depiction of female alcoholism. We tend to drink alone, and make very bad choices when we're not... I thought she was spot on with Rachel's drinking pattern. I kept thinking of Gone Girl when I read the book today (in one sitting). The tone and psychological twists.


message 19: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Robin wrote: "Excellent depiction of female alcoholism. We tend to drink alone, and make very bad choices when we're not... I thought she was spot on with Rachel's drinking pattern. I kept thinking of Gone Girl ..."

Robin, I think the two books have been compared, although obviously the stories are quite different - but as to the tone and the theme of bad marriages, they do have a lot in common.
It's interesting how secretive Rachel tries to be about her drinking, even thought it's pretty obvious to everyone what is going on. I gather that that, too, is typical of female alcoholics.


Lenore | 1078 comments Eleanor wrote: "...Rachel was so miserable she wanted to see someone's happy golden life ..."

Actually, I think it's the other way around: One reason why Rachel was so miserable is that she felt that everyone else's life was so much better than hers.


message 21: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Lenore wrote: "Eleanor wrote: "...Rachel was so miserable she wanted to see someone's happy golden life ..."

Actually, I think it's the other way around: One reason why Rachel was so miserable is that she felt t..."


I think either way she's pretty deluded - although at the time we meet her, she's really hit rock bottom. Her story, of course, is that she started to drink because of her unhappiness about her infertility and Tom's refusal to try in vitro again, but one wonders if she turned to drink because of some deeper unhappiness, maybe a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with her marriage...


message 22: by Erin (new) - added it

Erin (tangential1) | 1638 comments Mod
Merrily wrote: "maybe a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with her marriage... "

Or more likely she's just fundamentally unhappy with something about herself. I can't believe that someone who falls to the point that Rachel is at when we meet her is upset strictly over not being able to have kids or because their marriage fell apart. People deal with those issues all the time without turning to alcoholism. More likely, then, that she feels powerless and hopeless and unhappy with the choices presented to her.

If you can't be happy by yourself, you probably aren't going to be any more happy with others. Happiness and self-fulfillment being totally different than loneliness.


message 23: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Erin, true, although I don't think one can really generalize about what will/will not make people fall apart - folks have different tolerances in that respect.


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