When Janet Maslin reviewed Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train for the New York Times in 2015, she compared it to Gillian Flynn’s 2012 runaway best-seller Gone Girl. Most reviewers followed suit. The Girl on the Train soon became the fastest-selling adult novel in history. It's impossible to hear it mentioned without hearing Gone Girl credited for some of its success.
So it’s no surprise that when Universal set out to make the movie — which brought in a solid $24.7 million at the box office its opening weekend — it worked hard to keep the link alive, at least in the minds of the ticket buyers who helped propel David Fincher’s 2014 Gone Girl adaptation to its huge success. Universal chair Donna Langley told the Hollywood Reporter that when they approached the story, “we celebrated the female aspect of it, to be honest with you, because you want to get that core audience. We saw from films like Gone Girl that female audiences — if you give them something great — they are going to show up.”
The first trailer for The Girl on the Train was obviously calculated to fuel the comparison. It opens not with Emily Blunt — who plays Rachel, the movie’s main character — but rather with Haley Bennett, who bears a not-totally-accidental resemblance to Gone Girl star Rosamund Pike.
The way the Girl on the Train trailer is cut, you’d think the story is basically the same as Gone Girl, except with an added character or two and maybe more naked stuff.
Hawkins herself seems mildly frustrated by the comparison, and while confessing her own love for both Flynn’s novel and Fincher’s film, she told the Hollywood Reporter that the comparison was bad: “The comparisons have done me no harm,” she says with a laugh. “But I don't actually think they're very similar books.”
Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train have some similarities, but their differences are greater
But the stories are similar, sort of. Both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train have multiple narrators. Both anchor their plots on beautiful women gone missing from their comfortable suburban homes. Both feature murder and sex and unhappy marriages and complicated women.
But so what? Lots of books contain those elements. “Dark side of suburbia” novels — which suggest the American dream isn’t all that dreamy — have been around practically as long as suburbia itself, retold and reinvented all the time. They don’t all involve actual murder, but they usually feature a marriage that looks glossy and perfect on the outside, while inside it’s a horror show.
One of the finest early examples of this type of story is Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, nominated for a National Book Award in 1962, and made into a movie starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in 2008. Moving forward, you can detect the contours of the suburban plot in everything from The Graduate and American Beauty to Mad Men and The Ice Storm. Some movies, like The Truman Show, The Stepford Wives, and Donnie Darko, put a sci-fi spin on the plot. And early on, the trope migrated out of the marriage and into the lives of teenagers who were raised in those suburbs and hate it: Welcome to the Dollhouse, Heathers, The Virgin Suicides.
The whole point of these stories about the seamy underside of suburbia is subversive social critique — something The Girl on the Train never really musters. The genre exists to dismantle the forcefully cheery image with a fly-on-the-wall perspective. Deception is important, because it's the point: In these stories, the suburbs are just one massive deception. Outside, a sunny picket fence and a flower bed. Inside, a garbage fire.
The Girl on the Train certainly wants to be this tale. In fact, its whole setup is based on the idea that what you see from the outside — from the train, as you’re riding past the house — isn’t at all what’s going on inside. Watching Megan from the train window, Rachel thinks she’s seeing a perfect life. Anna, the woman who replaced Rachel by stealing her husband Tom and moving into her home, is beginning to feel like life outside that house was better. And Megan sees herself as a master of reinvention, someone skilled at slipping into another character's life.
They both have unreliable narrators, but with a key difference
In reviews of The Girl on the Train, Rachel is often called an unreliable narrator. That’s not completely baseless. We have reason to suspect, at least at first, that she isn’t telling the truth about her real motives in watching Megan and stalking her ex-husband Tom. That’s part of the book’s conceit: Nobody believes Rachel because she’s a mess, and so probably we won’t, either.
But quickly (much too quickly) it becomes clear that Rachel isn’t withholding information about the night Megan disappeared; she just doesn’t have it, because she was blackout drunk. There are some red herrings to keep us going (the red-haired man on the train), but Rachel, Megan, and Anna all narrate the story, and their function is mainly to fill in information about themselves that’s accurate where another character has merely guessed.
You could call it an attempt to make a point about the way we treat women who don’t present as having it all together — Rachel the alcoholic wreck turns out to be the smart one who correctly intuited that Megan’s affair accounted for her murder (though she misjudged who the guilty party was), and Megan looks like she's put together but is harboring unspeakable heartbreak.
But you can’t really call that an unreliable narrator. The whole point of an unreliable narrator is that the reader trusts the narrator's account of events, and then it turns out something is wrong: The narrator is impaired in some way, or lying, and that’s affected her view of the truth. Just not knowing the information isn’t enough. In fact, the only truly unreliable narrator in the book is Tom, your friendly neighborhood psychopath who flat-out gaslights the women who love him. (And you can kind of see it coming a mile away.)
Gone Girl uses all its element to critique suburbia — but with a 21st-century twist
The Girl on the Train’s inability to get a handle on its narratorial conceit severely messes with its ability to do any kind of social critique as well. It doesn't really have to — clearly a pulpy story about women and murder (and a train) can do just fine at the bookstore, and at the box office, without being subversive and clever. (This may say more about the lack of grown-up entertainment for women than anything else.) I can personally vouch for the audiobook, which is just interesting enough to make long weekend runs a little less boring.
But herein lies another reason the Gone Girl comparison is totally off. That novel is a great read (even if it’s not a literary masterpiece), and the movie is outstanding because it actually takes advantage of its unreliable narrator setup to totally mess with the audience's head — and tell a story about suburbia that has something to say to the 21st century.
After all, these days it's not very interesting to suggest that suburbia has a dark side. Like, sure. We get it. It's the sort of thing a newly woke college freshman would write about unironically.
But there is still a story to tell about the suburbs — one that inverts the American dream — and Gone Girl picks up on that skillfully. For the first half of Gone Girl, as you might recall, we become increasingly convinced that Nick is an unreliable narrator — that he actually murdered Amy and is lying to us. His narration is spliced together with excerpts from Amy's journal, which traces the early days of their relationship all the way through losing their jobs in the recession, forcing the couple to move away from New York City to Nick's hometown in Missouri. The journal is damning, with Amy tracing her growing fear of Nick, who seems to be growing abusive over the course of their relationship. (With some skillful editing and visual trickery, the film suggests the same.)
Then the big reveal happens: Amy faked her own death to get out of the perfect life she never wanted, but in a way devised to take Nick down with her. This isn't merely a case of a discontent housewife taking her revenge; it's a calculated effort to burn it all down and make Nick suffer as much as possible. It's not just because he's unfaithful — which he is — but because she blames him for the crumbling of their marriage and the move out West, and her unhappiness.
The details suggest Amy's intelligence — and psychopathy — far exceeds Tom's gaslighting: She steals urine from a pregnant neighbor to fake her own pregnancy, twists an old anniversary tradition into a way to get Nick to incriminate himself, fakes a whole diary, and comes up with assorted other ways to not just break up her marriage but also get rid of Nick permanently.
Gone Girl is basically an angry screed about the subprime mortgage crisis
To say Gone Girl is just a “metaphor” for the subprime mortgage crisis would be a bit simplistic. But it's certainly about more than just a lousy guy married to a genius killer. The story makes a point of exploring, in some detail, its houses. Amy and Nick's house in Missouri is situated in what Nick calls in the novel a “failed development: a miniature ghost town of bank-owned, recession-busted, price-reduced mansions, a neighborhood that closed before it ever opened.”
The house itself “screams Suburban Nouveau Riche, the kind of place I aspired to as a kid from my split-level, shag-carpet side of town” — Nick grew up in the town — and is the kind of house they both hate: “generically grand, unchallenging, new, new, new house that my wife would — and did — detest.” But it's a sort of aspirational home for Nick, even if he's self-conscious about its banality. Just being in it, even as a renter, reminds him that despite the recession, he's moved up a little in the world, above what his parents could have dreamed for him.
Much of Amy's anger seems to stem from her parents, both psychologists, who more or less stole her childhood by writing a series of children's books featuring “Amazing Amy,” a sort of doppelgänger for the real Amy who always makes positive choices in her life. Amy's parents are portrayed as either doting or stifling, depending on how you look at it. This sounds suspiciously familiar, in sync with a lot of the helicopter parenting that marked the late 20th century, when Amy was a kid.
What it produced was a woman who wanted out and found the escape route in Nick, who seemed fun and maybe a little dangerous and not at all a part of her parents’ stuffy, upper-crusty life. But she continued to be tied to them: With their Amazing Amy money, they bought her a Brooklyn brownstone and gave her a trust fund that freed her up to make decisions beyond the constraints of money.
But then it turns out her parents have been too profligate with their money and are in some deep trouble, especially with their real estate investment — “We should write a book: Amazing Amy and the Adjustable Rate Mortgage,” Amy's mother tells her. “We would flunk every quiz.” And they ask her to wire them the money from her trust fund to make up the difference, which wouldn't be such a big deal if Amy and Nick hadn't both lost their cushy magazine jobs.
What happens next — the move to Missouri, the faked murder, the accusations, the whole thing — is really the first time Amy ends up in suburbia, and while she hates it, you can see her actions toward Nick as at least partly revenge on her parents, an attempt to publicly shred their “Amazing Amy” and her marriage. (The final Amazing Amy book was about Amy's marriage to Handy Andy.)
The disintegration of Amy and Nick's marriage is pretty banal and run-of-the-mill — she hates him for the isolation, he hates her for not being the sparkling and interesting person he thought she'd be, he cheats, she finds out.
And it all takes place in a big McMansion that’s anything but the glowing paragon of American prosperity of most suburban stories. Nick says that “driving into our development occasionally makes me shiver, the sheer number of gaping dark houses — homes that have never known inhabitants, or homes that have known owners and seen them ejected, the house standing triumphantly voided, humanless.”
(It may or may not be a coincidence that Amy's stalker ex-boyfriend, who imprisons her in an opulent and incredibly decked-out guesthouse on his property, is named Desi Collings, which is an anagram for both Cosigned Ills and Closings Lied. She stabs him to death.)
The Girl on the Train is a tale of revenge, but Gone Girl is horror
The story twists again when Amy reunites with Nick, who by this time knows she is intent on destroying him — but instead of doing it by landing him in jail, she wants to make him suffer for his whole life. But she realizes soon that she'll need a “precaution,” as she calls it, and comes up with one: “We will have a happy marriage if it kills him.”
Typically, stories about the suburbs begin looking blissful and end with the facade shattered; that’s the tragedy, that the picket fence dream was fake, and now it’s gone. But Gone Girl knows that the tragedy is already old news by the start: the gaping dark houses, the “humanless” housing developments. The story ends with Amy trapping Nick — who, as his sister Go points out, is reprehensible for simply being too impotent to do the right thing — by rebuilding the very suburban facade characters usually want to dismantle. “We are on the eve of becoming the world's best, brightest nuclear family,” she writes. “We just need to sustain it.”
There’s an element here of metaphor, given that the “solution” to the subprime debacle wasn’t much of a solution at all: Some “too big to fail” banks got propped up, others went under, McMansion construction may be to blame for another looming housing crisis, and subprime mortgages get periodically repackaged as some other totally-not-risky economic stimulus.
That sort of anger — that one thing was promised and it turned out to be hollow — is echoed in Amy and Nick’s disintegrating marriage and their disillusionment with it. It’s no surprise that their frustration hits the boiling point after the promise of an older generation fails, then borrows on their future and forces them away from their dreams.
But more importantly, this is why the unreliable narrator matters: As with the factors that took down the economy, it’s not forgetting information in a blackout that matters so much as a lot of people purposely withholding information or misrepresenting it all at once altogether (lenders to borrowers, borrowers to banks, ratings agencies to investors, banks to one another and to regulators). Gone Girl gets this and, by using it as a narrative device, lets audiences revisit the moral indignation the crisis sparked.
The Girl on the Train is set in the same time as Gone Girl, roughly — both past the 2007 housing crisis. But since it sticks to the old plot arc — did you know people aren’t as happy as they look on the outside? I know — it never really gets anywhere. It’s a story of tragedy and revenge, but one without any originality, and so the reason any of it matters is murky.
Gone Girl, on the other hand, knows that the suburban story today is certainly a tragedy — paradise built, then lost, an American dream crushed. But in a stroke of genius, Gone Girl repaints the tragedy as ongoing horror, with your own death plausible at any moment and your captor sleeping in your bed.
After the subprime mortgage crisis almost took the world's economy down with it, if you're going to lay into the suburbs, you've really got one choice of an ending: outside, a sunny picket fence and a flower bed. Inside, a living nightmare.