Review of The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train has much to recommend it, not least of which is its best- seller status. But I wonder about the recent flurry of “Girl” books, starting with Gillian Flynn’s truly admirable Gone Girl.
I loved GG. It was slick, interesting, surprising. Good plot (excellent plot, actually. I remember thinking you’d have to be a mastermind to plot something as complicated as this.), well-drawn characters, plausible motivations (the minor exception being Nick Dunne’s final dubitable decision).
But then along came Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on a Train, followed shortly by Renne Knight’s Disclaimer, another in kind (though one lacking the eponymous “Girl” title).
Let’s take GT. Similar in style to Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is told from multiple points of view—four, in fact: three women and one man, all of whom, sounded alike. This was my first problem with the book, which, in the end, had a decent plot. But when all of a novel’s characters sound the same, it’s difficult to distinguish one from another, a cardinal rule in novel-writing being that each character have its own “voice.” So I had trouble navigating GT because I could never be quite sure who was speaking (unless I went back to the chapter heads to double-check), which greatly disrupted the flow of the narrative.
A second confusing issue was the time frame. Like GG and so many other contemporary novels (reaching back as far as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours—which was excellent and warranted the shifts in time—as well as Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife and Sara Gruen’s Like Water for Elephants, for example) GT moves forward and back in time, a technique which has become less ‘novel’ than de rigueur. So de rigueur, in fact, it’s become tiresome, mainly because it’s difficult to follow.
A lifelong reader, I propose a return to the days of straightforward narrative—unless different time periods are truly warranted by the story. Let the story stand on its own merit. Let the characters absorb us. Let their voices seduce us. Let go of the gimmickry of multiple points of view and shifts in time—or at least use them judiciously. Currently they’re so over-used as to become parodies of themselves, serving no other purpose than to confuse the reader—which, sadly, seems to be the sole point of many of the Gone Girl clones.