The Girl on the Train

9781594633669_p0_v3_s260x420Although Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train has been at the top of the bestseller list, I have resisted reading the book – because reviewers have compared the story to Gillian Flynn’ Gone Girl – and I did not want to revisit a sordid tale with miserable characters and an ending with no acceptable possibilities.  But The Girl on the Train is so much better.  Like Alfred Hitchcock, Hawkins understands that the audience wants twists and turns, red herrings, and scary scenes in a psychological crime thriller – but above all, readers want closure and relief – hopefully with the villain finally being defeated.  Hawkins, unlike Flynn, delivers.

The story flips back and forth from several unreliable narrators – basically, almost everyone is lying to someone.  Rachel is the girl on the train; she imagines lives for people she sees in houses along a short rail stop.  Have you ever played that game sitting in a restaurant or a park, watching people go by – wondering what their lives are like – sometimes creating fantasies about who they are and where they are going?  A friend tells me she has done this with her husband, as she blithely identifies who belongs to the neighborhood and who is on vacation.  Rachel has an insider’s view to the game; she is divorced from Tom who lives in one of the houses with his new wife and baby.  A few doors down, she creates a better life for neighbors Megan and Scott, assigning the perfect marriage to this couple – until she sees Megan with another man, as the train moves on.

Eventually, all these characters connect – and Megan’s disappearance fuels the beginning of the mystery.  Hawkins cleverly introduces police detectives and a psychiatrist into the mix, as Rachel’s credibility as the key narrator continues to fall apart.  As each character’s fatal flaw unravels, Hawkins changes the scene and the possibilities of whodunnit:  Rachel, an alcoholic with blackouts, leaving her wondering what she did in those empty hours; Scott, Megan’s husband, a secret wife beater; Tom, the corrosive liar.  Even Anna, the new wife with a guilt complex, becomes a possible co-conspirator.

Since it’s more fun to read the story yourself and try to figure out the next turn, I won’t tell you more or offer any spoilers.  But – if you liked the dark side of Gone Girl, you will probably like The Girl on the Train.  And – if you did not like Gone Girl – you will find The Girl on the Train a better thought-out drama.

The Girl on the Train is Paula Hawkins’ debut in the crime thriller genre, and I can’t wait until her next book.  I may even check out some of earlier books –  romance novels, written under her pseudonym, Amy Silver.


Penelope Fitzgerald and others

The ubiquitous Gone Girl never seems to go away.  Gillian Flynn and Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) are paired in an article about books made into movies in this Sunday’s New York Times.  I have yet to read Wild, and may wait for Reese Witherspoon’s version, but I share Bob Odenkirk’s view from his New York Times interview in “By the Book” –

I thought “Gone Girl” pushed the unreliable-narrator gambit past the breaking point. Please don’t hit me with your copy of “Gone Girl.”

Nevertheless, I read the article and admired the two self-posessed American forty-somethings.

Still searching for inspiration, I found Stacy Schiff’s review of Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography – a new book by Hermione Lee.  Schiff, the biographer of Cleopatra (see my review here ), notes the rediscovery of an older woman who had marinated through most of her life, before producing her first novel at age 60 and winning the Man Booker Prize in 1979 when she was 63 (proving it’s never too late).   The Blue Flower, published when Fitzgerald was 78, is called her masterpiece.

9780395859971_p0_v1_s260x420Hermione Lee, Fitzgerald’s biographer, describes The Blue Flower as a “novel about youth, hope, idealism, and the imagination…

The Blue Flower imagines the families, history and ideas of late 18th-century provincial Germany, the period in which the philosopher Novalis (Fritz von Hardenberg) was a young man, just when Romanticism was emerging…a mysterious short book… Fritz’s family life, his work as a tax collector for the salt mines, his philosophical education, the story of the woman who silently loves him, his romantic passion for the naive Sophie, who dies a cruel death, and the landscape of his everyday life…his visionary dream of a blue flower that can never be found haunts the book like a half-remembered tune…

Music is very important to the novel, and it is constructed, boldly, in short scenes, like moments in a dream or songs. The blue flower keeps shifting its meaning. What is its name, Sophie asks him. “He knew it once,” Fritz replies. “He was told the name, but he has forgotten it. He would give his life to remember it”.

Fitzgerald said once that the blue flower is what you want of life. “Even if there’s no possibility of reaching it, you must never give up”.

I am on my way to pick up a copy from the library.  It sounds familiar but I don’t remember reading it.

Have you read it?



All That Is

9781400043132_p0_v2_s260x420If you are thinking you are too old to write, consider James Salter at 87 years old with his first novel in 35 years – All That Is. Although Salter has a reputation for being in the same league as Roth and Updike (according to NPR), I have not read any of his books (over a dozen) including the tempting title – Life is Meals. His age prompted my interest – not the glorious reviews or awards.

Salter documents the life of Philip Bowman in All That Is, beginning with a horrifying description of his participation in World War II as a junior naval officer in the Pacific. Bowman graduates from Harvard, marries a Southern Belle, has an affair, divorces, and works his way up as a book editor at a small New York publishing house. As you follow him, Bowman’s life seems ordinary; his experiences could reflect that of any man looking back on his life.  Salter treats the story like a fictional memoir but keeps you present at each stage of Bowman’s life, introducing and interacting with Philip’s mother, friends, lovers, fellow workers – with acute attention to the details.   As he shifts the point of view, it’s easy to be confused about who is ruminating; characters move in and out of focus, and it sometimes takes a few paragraphs to realize someone else is talking. Malcolm Jones in his New York Times review notes:

In the preface to his 1997 memoir, “Burning the Days,” {Salter} wrote: “If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house. Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly. Visitors come and go…As with any house, all within cannot be seen.” That apt description of his engaging reminiscences might easily serve to introduce this novel.

All That Is has that literary quality that will keep you reading, only if you do not require constant angst, mystery and intrigue, scandal, romance, sex. Not that these are missing; they are just not always obvious – except for the sex. His words have that lilting beauty that can lull the reader into not realizing how awful the action really is.

Philip finally falls in love with his soulmate – not his wife.  She mercilessly uses him to get what she wants.  Reeling from the shock of her betrayal, Philip is desolate – until he exacts revenge through her daughter.  His action leaves that sour taste that Gillian Flynn perfected so well in Gone Girl; Salter’s character has more sophistication and literary aplomb – but is no less loathsome – and the ending promises that he will continue to be.

I closed the book with a hollow feeling.  With magnificent language throughout and a documented life that often connected to an everyman scenario, the story had no real plot, yet Bowman seemed worth following.   Alas, he was not.

The Dinner

9780770437855_p0_v4_s260x420What is it about horrible characters that can capture and hold my attention, and then leave a sour taste afterwards, with a depressed feeling of having wasted a day in reading about them?  Gillian Flynn did it in Gone Girl, and now the Dutch writer Herman Koch has repeated that hypnotic guile in The Dinner.

As he marches his characters through a family dinner at an elite restaurant, the innocuous descriptions of fussy waiters and overpriced food lull the reader into wondering why the tale had been listed as a thriller.  Slowly, the inadequacies and quirks of Paul, the history teacher whose psychiatric disorder has forced him to take a leave of absence, and Serge, his brother, the aspiring prime minister with a penchant for control and overeating, escalate from petulant commentary to sinister foreboding.

The parents have met for “the dinner” to discuss their children – teenagers whose recent horrendous criminal action (no spoiler here), recorded by a security camera, has gone viral on the internet – with the faces of the boys unrecognizable to all, except their parents.  The pressure increases when one of the boys uses his phone video posting on YouTube, with more specific identification of the perpetrators,  to blackmail the others.  The parents are meeting at “the dinner” to decide what to do.

As the courses are served, Koch uses the narrator, Paul, as an observer of the inadequacies of the world in general; his thoughts seem benign and a little caustic, but soon the inferences become prejudicial and sarcastic. No one is innocent, moral, or with any semblance of conscience, and parenting is an exercise in avoidance, bad example, and promoting bad behavior in the interest of protecting one’s child.

Like Gone Girl, this tale is told by an unreliable narrator, who is at once unlikable yet compelling, and with twists in the story that are disorienting.  If you like to get your thrills through skeptical illustrations of the dark side of the mind, you might appreciate Koch’s manipulations – and wonder if those around you, who are seemingly normal, are just one close step from becoming dangerously asocial.


Gillian Flynn Responds – Gone Girl Ending

In one of the few times an author has responded to my query, Gillian Flynn wrote back about my dislike of her ending in Gone Girl

I’m sorry to hear that! I can only say I wrote the ending that was the most unsettling to me. I am a big fan of the ending of unease. To me it feels real and it feels unnerving. Because you may not know exactly what is going to happen next in Gone Girl World, but you know it’s not good. I love hearing different people’s theories about the ending—to me that’s the fun of reading a book, when you find yourself imagining the characters even after the book is over, and you find yourselves in debates with friends about it, as if the characters were two people who lived down the street (in the case of Nick and Amy, you’d probably want to relocate…).  Gillian Flynn

She’s right about my not wanting to live near or know Nick and Amy.

What did you think of the ending?

Read my review of Gone Girl – here