How to Sound Smart: 'The Girl on the Train'

Everyone's talking about this boo – here's how to sound smart about it

The Girl on the Train cover
The next "Girl Gone"? Or a better book?.

Paula Hawkins’ thriller The Girl on the Train has been on the bestseller lists for weeks now, and has racked up impressive sales. It’s one of the most talked-about new novels this year, and for good reason: Hawkins has crafted a smart, unpredictable novel with smart plot points, interesting characters, and an unpredictable quality that’s hard to fake. In short, it’s a really good book, and everyone, it seems, is reading and talking about. And when they talk, they invariably mention Gone Girl by Gillan Flynn.

It’s easy to see why: Both books are written by women, both books have the word “girl” in the title, and both books focus on non-standard female characters and feature really, really unreliable narrators. But if you want to sound smart when discussing The Girl on the Train (and who doesn’t?) then you have to start with one basic fact: It’s a better book than Gone Girl.

Rachel is a Better Unreliable Narrator

Both novels play off the concept of the “unreliable narrator” (pro tip: Drop that phrase into your discussion of the book and everyone will nod wisely), but in Gone Girl Amy’s unreliableness is used as a trick—the reader is led to believe they know what’s happening and have no way of knowing they are being lied to. In The Girl on the Train, however, Rachel’s unreliable nature is part of her character: She’s an alcoholic, prone to blackouts, and as a result, the reader isn’t tricked or played for a fool but knows full well they can’t necessarily trust Rachel. This makes the story much more interesting – and less likely to make you angry because you were lied to.

Rachel is a More Consistent Character

In Gone Girl, Amy is presented initially as the Most Competent Sociopath on Earth: She expertly manipulates everyone and sees all the angles. Then she makes several huge mistakes in rapid succession that make no sense for someone who faked her own death so perfectly: She fails to take any steps to protect her cash from the grifters, she has no better ideas for next moves than to call Desi (meaning a woman who expertly framed her husband for murder is reduced to calling a man for help within a few dozen book pages), and has to take spectacular chances in order to escape Desi’s clutches. Rachel’s obsession with the people she sees from the train, her paranoia, and her compulsion to investigate, by contrast, are entirely consistent with the character as we meet her and as we leave her.

The Nick Dunne Problem

Nick Dunne is so fantastically boring a character, only Ben Affleck could play him in the film, and yet somehow a smart, driven (and crazy) woman like Amy is not only attracted to him but so powerfully attracted to him that his betrayal of her sparks a sociopathic freak out for the ages. But we’re told that Nick is compelling, nothing he does or says in his portions of the book (or, really, even in Amy’s flashbacks) bears this out. Compare this to The Girl on the Train which gives us several compelling characters, all of whom fall under suspicion at some point, and all of whom are more interesting because we have to use our wits and follow along to figure out who’s suspicious, and who merely looks suspicious.

The Twist Isn’t All There Is

Look, Gone Girl is well-written, a lot of fun, and a thoroughly entertaining book. But it’s a story that depends entirely on its twist – if you know what’s coming, the rest of the book just isn’t as great. In contrast, The Girl on the Train is less dependent on its twist. In fact, because it plays a bit more honest with the reader, many people figure out what’s going on before the book reveals it, and yet the rest of the story is no less enjoyable for it.

Gone Girl’s a great book, make no mistake read it, you’ll love it. But The Girl on the Train is better.