One of the enduring mysteries of popular culture is why certain mediocre works become wildly successful, even inescapable. In addition to the occasional masterpiece, book publishing produces hundreds of thousands of middling titles every year, and every so often one of them catches on, becoming the blockbuster that funds all the rest. But why that particular book? Take Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, a psychological thriller of very modest accomplishment that has sold upward of 11 million copies, putting Hawkins on Forbes’ list of the highest-paid authors in the world, one slot above Game of Thrones’ George R.R. Martin. Most best-sellers aren’t any better than the drably written and predictably twist-ridden The Girl on the Train, of course, and some are much worse. But the typical successful commercial novelist—from James Patterson to Mary Higgins Clark—succeeds not by coming out of nowhere with a remarkable book but because she has hammered out a formula more or less her own, promising her readers a reassuringly familiar experience. Can Hawkins? Her new novel, Into the Water, will tell.
Set in a village in Northern England, Into the Water isn’t a retread of The Girl on the Train. It lacks elements some consider key to that earlier book’s success. Instead of a central, unreliable female narrator, Hawkins tells the story from a half-dozen perspectives, and there isn’t the same claustrophobic focus on marriage and the perfidy of husbands. In Into the Water, it’s the whole community that conspires to gaslight and malign Hawkins’ heroines, and in place of the urban professional milieu of The Girl on the Train, she gives us historical misogyny and intimations of the supernatural.
The village of Beckford is situated on a river that widens at one point into a deep pool overlooked by a cliff. In the distant past, witches were tied up and thrown into the pool in the classic Catch-22 ordeal: If they floated, they were guilty, and if they were innocent, they sank. When the novel, which is set in the present day, begins, Jules Abbott, a woman who grew up in Beckford and whose adult life is so thinly sketched as to be almost nonexistent, returns to care for her sullen 16-year-old niece Lena. Lena’s mother, Nel, has just drowned in the pool, an apparent suicide—the third woman to die this way in the past 30 years.
Nel, a writer and photographer, was working on a project about the drowning pool, aggravating the locals by asking questions about the two earlier suicides before carrying out her own. One of the dead women was a local wife and mother whose plunge was reputedly witnessed by her little son, and the other was Lena’s best friend, a teenage girl with seemingly everything to live for. Nel’s theory—“Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women”—challenges the long-standing legend that the pool mesmerizes its tragic victims. A disreputable old psychic claims that some of the suicides were in fact murders, but nobody listens to her.
Into the Water isn’t an impressive book. Its tone is uniformly lugubrious and maudlin, and Hawkins’ characters seldom rise to the level of two dimensions, let alone three. Their depth is telegraphed by the way they brood over their failings while staring into the dark waters, and they seem to be constantly exclaiming, “You don’t understand what I’ve done!” Hawkins makes liberal use of coy suspense-building devices, such as having people think in vague terms about an important event or object without describing it clearly enough to give away later plot developments. Yet few readers will have difficulty figuring out who’s guilty of what well before Hawkins delivers the obligatory twists.
None of this will necessarily prevent Into the Water from triumphing at the cash register. The book surely will become a best-seller, if only on the strength of residual name recognition for The Girl on the Train. But whether Hawkins can establish a reliably lucrative formula is a different matter, especially for a commercial novelist whose success seems inextricably tied to someone else’s.
There are plenty of theories about why The Girl on the Train caught on, but all of them involve Gillian Flynn’s game-changing 2012 bestseller, Gone Girl. Flynn’s novel filled millions of readers with a taste for certain flavor of thriller: focused on domestic intrigue and with an unreliable and not especially likable female protagonist. Domestic suspense isn’t a new genre, but Flynn gave it a much bigger audience with Gone Girl, and she hasn’t published a new novel since. Hawkins’ publisher, to its credit, never promoted The Girl on the Train as “the new Gone Girl,” but it didn’t have to. The press, aware of an audience hungry for more, repeatedly nominated The Girl on the Train, among other titles, as an antidote to “Gone Girl withdrawal.” But where Flynn’s novel played ingenious, diabolical games with narrative and the conventions of the genre while dispensing razor-sharp riffs on contemporary gender roles and creative-class aspirations, most of the pretenders to her throne have more circumspect ambitions. The Girl on the Train is woolly and blurred where Gone Girl has edges and details. The Girl on the Train might have been written at any time in the past three decades or so, whereas Gone Girl offers a precise take on its own historical moment, the aftermath of the 2008 recession.
What The Girl on the Train does share with Gone Girl is a story set in motion (despite that all-important “girl” in the title) by a treacherous husband. In The Girl on the Train, the title character, Rachel, is an alcoholic spinning into depression after a divorce that leaves her feeling obliterated. Her fondness for voyeurizing the street where she and her husband once lived (and where he now lives with his new wife) leads her to witness what she thinks is evidence of a murder. No one believes Rachel because she’s a drunk and a borderline stalker obsessed with her ex. Even Rachel doubts her own patchy memories. The end of the novel, however, sees her suspicions redeemed: “Rachel was right,” comes the verdict from a most unlikely corner. “She was right about everything.” For the novel’s predominantly female readership, that line might best sum up its appeal. Rachel is a mess, people call her crazy, but goddammit, she was right all along.
Into the Water features several wronged women whose judgement is mistrusted by those around them—Hawkins dedicates the novel to “all the troublemakers.” Jules has a habit of muttering to herself. (She’s actually talking to Nel.) Lena is a teenager. And bohemian Nel’s obsession with the drowned women alienates the rest of the townsfolk. Marriage and its discontents barely figure in the story. And while the many perspectives that make up Into the Water have replaced the unstable narration of Rachel in The Girl on the Train, ambiguity remains in the suggestion that both Jules and the village’s irascible old psychic might actually be receiving communications from the dead. Even a hard-headed policewoman brought in to investigate the deaths gets spooked by the atmosphere around the drowning pool.
These choices suggest that Hawkins has identified what she believes to be the heart of her nascent franchise: stories in which fragile, damaged, or otherwise disempowered Cassandras voice warnings that everyone ignores until the workings of the plot prove them to be speaking the truth. That’s a cozy, self-congratulatory scenario for many female readers, however much it may also sometimes play out in real life. It’s also a depressing development in the evolution of that breed of thriller that rode in on Flynn’s coattails and of which The Girl on the Train has been the most prominent example. Gone Girl—devious and merciless—casts a cold eye on our ambivalence toward female ambition. Amy Dunne fabricates the facade of a victim in order to exercise her steely, Nietzschean will to power. She’s a monster, but one whose grotesque schemes constitute a satire on just how far a woman has to go to regain control of her life while retaining the approval of the people—particularly the women—around her and in society at large. The fact that many female readers condemn her as “unlikable” only proves Flynn’s point. We remember Amy so vividly in part because we so seldom meet anyone like her in popular fiction.
Hawkins’ indistinct heroines, on the other hand, revive a shopworn figure: the gothic heroine. Last seen in a nightgown, fleeing a spooky house on the covers of countless pulp novels published during the 1960s and ’70s, she’s a wan, meek creature, deceived and abused by wicked men. She escapes their clutches only by the skin of her teeth; her bolder and braver sisters end up like Nel, killed to set a mystery in motion. To be sure, this a formula (the prototype is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca) that once sold millions of paperbacks. If the success of The Girl on the Train is any indication, Hawkins will sell millions more of her updated version. Gone Girl made me hope we might have grown out of that formula—a pipe dream that would surely make Amy Dunne laugh her head off.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. Riverhead Books.