Take two thrillers, girl in the title, both involving missing women, both with split narration, both made into a movie, both written by female authors.
I recently read these two books back to back so I thought it would be interesting to compare them against one another. Turns out the whole internet had the same thought. But I’m not going to let that deter me. 🙂
Story (spoiler free zone)
Gone Girl is the story of a married couple, Amy and Nick Dunne, who, like many married couples, have some problems. On their fifth wedding anniversary Amy disappears. There are signs of a disturbance at the family home and the longer Amy is gone, the more everyone suspects Nick.
Rachel Watson is The Girl on the Train. Every day she commutes to London, stopping at the same red signal where she can see the back of the houses on the street where she used to live. She fantasizes about Megan and Scott, a couple that she sees from the train, imagining their perfect lives in stark contrast to her own. And then Megan goes missing, Scott is the prime suspect and Rachel can’t help but get involved.
So this is where the main comparison between the novels starts – a missing wife, a suspected husband, both whodunnits – but although the bones of the two novels looks the same, the structure and flesh couldn’t be more different. To suggest that these are the same story is a bit like taking a couple of bones from the skeleton of a dog and a couple from a cat and saying they’re the same animal. I can’t easily say more about the respective plots without giving away spoilers but I will say that both have an interesting twist.
Both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train are written in mixed POV. In Gone Girl the narration is mostly from Nick Dunne. The story of the events surrounding Amy’s disappearance is told in the first person present tense by Nick but is mixed in with diary entries written by Amy, which tell the story of their history and recent relationship. Spoiler alert on this one: Neither narrator is reliable. Nick and Amy both have their secrets and reasons to mislead the reader.
The Girl on the Train is mixed first person narrative from the three main female characters: Rachel Watson (the girl on the train), Megan (the missing girl) and Anna Watson. Anna is married to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom, and they live down the street from Megan and her husband, Scott. The novel is mostly in Rachel’s POV, this is her novel after all. Rachel is an alcoholic. Sometimes when she drinks she blacks out and even when she doesn’t black out she can’t always remember clearly. She is the very definition of the unreliable narrator.
So again, it’s easy to see the similarities here and not necessarily the differences. However, Gone Girl’s characters are deliberately secretive and misleading – they have things they don’t want to share – where Rachel’s narration is not willfully misleading. Rachel wants to tell you, she just can’t. She wants to know herself and her frustration combined with the dribs and drabs of information and misinformation that surface in her memory make for a very different dynamic. In one novel you start off trusting your narrators and have a growing distrust, with the other the role is reversed. In both novels trying to identify the truth is challenging and expertly handled by the respective authors. It is definitely part of the attraction.
None of these characters is particularly likable or endearing. In The Girl on the Train Rachel is an alcoholic, Anna is a cheat and a home-wrecker, Megan has so many reasons she’s messed up, Tom left his wife and Scott is possessive and jealous. Even the peripheral characters such as Rachel’s flat mate and the police officers conducting the investigation have their flaws. Gone Girl starts off with sympathetic characters but the deeper you go and the more you find out about these people and their flaws, the less likable they become.
As with most novels the characters transform these two books from average to spectacular. I love a good anti-hero and as far as I’m concerned, flawed characters are ‘real’ characters and these characters are all so broken and crazy. There are two real stand-outs, however. Rachel is so screwed up and makes so many mistakes but she tries so thoroughly and fails so spectacularly that I couldn’t help but adore her. God loves a tryer and apparently so do I. My other favourite character in these two novels is Amy. She is off-the-chart nuts. I can’t love her in the same way I do Rachel – she does some unspeakably bonkers and horrible things – but I admire her. I admire Amy’s composure, her resourcefulness, her tenacity and her righteousness (even if it is completely insane).
So What Works & What Doesn’t
Up front I want to say that I absolutely prefer The Girl on the Train. The biggest problem I have with Gone Girl is that I found the ending wholly unsatisfying. It’s agonising that I can’t say more without massive spoilers but what I can say is that I felt that Gillian Flynn wrote herself into a very difficult position with Gone Girl. I can think of two or three alternative conclusions and none of them are especially appealing. What Flynn did manage to do extraordinarily well is to deal with some difficult characters and to cook a magnificently bonkers plot.
The Girl on the Train is as close to perfection as anything I’ve read. It’s a marvelously tangled plot with a twist that I didn’t even suspect until about two-thirds of the way through and the characters sparkle with interesting back story. The author feeds you enough to keep you wanting to turn the page and ultimately delivers a rewarding climax. I have only one criticism and that’s to say that Anna and Rachel are too similar in the narrative. I never struggled to separate Megan and Rachel but for some reason I had terrible trouble keeping Anna in my mind when I was reading her narrative and it was incredibly frustrating, particularly towards the end.
Movies & The Final Fling
I watched Gone Girl just a couple of days ago but I haven’t seen The Girl on the Train so I can’t compare. However, I will say that Gone Girl is very faithful to the book. I did find myself wishing that it would be a bit more pacey and a little less psychological but it’s still a decent film. The casting is almost spot on: I can’t imagine a better Nick Dunne than Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike is just the right combination of striking beauty and absolute crazy. They were both stand-out performances. I could wish for someone other than Neil Patrick Harris as Desi: In the book Desi was truly pathetic and needy and Neil Patrick Harris is just too respectable and handsome to really fit the role. That’s not a reflection on him, he simply wasn’t, in my opinion, the right actor for the part. I’m excited for The Girl on the Train: Emily Blunt is a very capable actor who should do the part justice, and Allison Janney is a firm favourite of mine too.
So on a final note, I hope you’ll read both books and make your own judgements. Both are very worthy of your time and effort and they have a lot to offer you as a reader and also as a writer, particularly if you want to write in mixed first person narrative. They are superbly well crafted and supremely intelligent. If you are only going to read one, I recommend The Girl on the Train. I think it’s a better novel and, because it’s so faithful to the book, you can always watch Gone Girl as a movie.
What about you? Have you read one or both? What did you think? What worked for you and what didn’t? (Please, no spoilers without first warning others!)