Welcome to our third reflection, where we over-analyze and get opinionated about books and life. If you want more of the same, check out our reflections on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Viscera.
The Girl on the Train got me thinking about the importance of perspective, and taking the time to place ourselves in others’ shoes before jumping to conclusions. Be warned, spoilers abound below.
First, let’s quickly run down how The Girl on the Train plays with the theme of perspective.
In the beginning, Rachel has constructed a dream life for Megan and Scott based on nothing more than seeing them on their deck during her morning commute. This fantasy takes on a life of its own until it has the power to affect Rachel emotionally when she witnesses Megan’s affair.
By interpreting the same event through three different women’s perspectives, we see the disconnect between intention and perception. For example, at one point Anna catches Rachel as stumbling from a place she really shouldn’t be. Rachel is embarrassed, can’t find the words to explain herself, smiles awkwardly, and leaves quickly. That’s what happened, in her own words. That is the intention, the message sent. The message received by Anna is completely different: She sees a proud woman who will not even speak to her, taunting her with a sinister grin.
If you read past the spoiler image and think you might ever read this book, leave now, because here comes a doozy of a reveal. Ready?
Because we spend most of the book seeing the world through the perspective of two women who adore and, yes, even idolize him, the reader completely trusts Tom. Or, if you didn’t, it’s clear that you’re supposed to. Tom is ultimately an adulterer and a murderer. Looking back over the narrative with that in mind, it’s clear that Tom actually does several very sketchy things. We know from the jump that he is capable of unfaithfulness, but Rachel blames herself for his affair during their marriage, so we excuse (or, at least, understand) that indiscretion. We know that he is possessive of his electronics, but his new wife Anna trusts him, and Rachel, again, blames herself for her snooping. We receive hints from Scott that Megan had another affair, beyond the one with her counselor, but it is so quickly brushed over that we might assume it’s backstory, therefore irrelevant to the central mystery. And so, the man idolized for the first 80% of the novel is ultimately the most untrustworthy.
When it comes to social interaction and relationships, perspective matters. Communication is hard, people. Anyone who says otherwise is probably manipulating you. When our loved ones seem hurt by the things we say and do, it’s natural to feel defensive, to interpret the situation in the way that makes us feel the best about ourselves. If left unchecked, this instinct can become so unconscious that we become unable to let go of our filtered, deeply-held version of reality. In that space, we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. We fail to react with grace and understanding.
Sometimes, it feels like we live in what feels like the most divided generation ever. Remember what your elementary school teacher probably told you when you got into a shouting match on the playground. Some truths cross the bridge to adulthood. Stop. Take a breath. Count to ten if you have to. Put yourself in that other person’s shoes for a minute. That other person comes pre-packaged with their own set of experiences that filters everything you say before it hits their brain. And, guess what? So do you. Even if they don’t react in a way that honors your humanity, kill them with kindness and honor theirs.
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