Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and, most recently, The Widow: girls make for good pageturners.

Fiona Barton WidowBut Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins and Fiona Barton are looking to tell different kinds of stories about girls.

In a BookPage interview, Gillian Flynn tries to explain why Gone Girl captured “the popular imagination so thoroughly”.

“It’s perhaps in part because America is still a place where we are most comfortable with women fitting the very specific role of selfless caretaker.”

But as Amy Scribner says: “Flynn doesn’t write about that kind of woman.”

This was in December 2012 and Gone Girl has continued to capture readers who were apparently bored with stories about selfless, caretaking girls.

“I write for people who are readers the way I’m a reader. I don’t care if I dislike a character; I care if I find them interesting or they make me laugh, or if I’m trying to figure them out. I am always more interested in that.” (The Guardian, interview with Emma Brockes October 2, 2014)

And readers do want to figure out this novel, but even more to the point, publishers want to figure out where its appeal lies.

Its author is more circumspect: “You’re never, ever going to repeat that thing – it was its own weird lightning in a bottle kind of thing. My job is to never, ever try to replicate that, because that’s how you write a really bad novel.” (Kate Tuttle Salon, November 3, 2015)

What is the Gone Girl formula?

At the heart of the story is trust — and distrust.

In the context of intimacy — and alienation.

Against a backdrop of desire — and despondence.

And these elements are present in all three of these novels: Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and The Widow.

Just as the blurbs and teasers for the later novels refer back to the dramatic success of Gone Girl, the themes of the novels intersect and reverberate.

To illustrate the point, here are some quotes. (Note: each of the novels contains multiple POVs, so you will have hard time deducing the source from details about the narrators, and I won’t name the sources so we can avoid spoilers.)

“Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you? So that’s how the hating first began. I’ve thought about this a lot, and that’s where it started, I think.”

“It’s going to be hard. It might be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I’m going to tell the truth. No more lies, no more hiding, no more running, no more bullshit. I’m going to put everything out in the open, and then we’ll see.”

Flynn Gone Girl“I wonder whether they are there, whether he knows, whether he’s left, or whether he’s still living a life he’s yet to discover is a lie.”

True selves and open declarations, pretensions and deceits: these are the stuff of girls who are not made out of sugar and spice and everything nice.

And the wife? She is the primary person-of-interest. As Fiona Barton explains, regarding the spark for The Widow, which dated to her years working as a journalist:

“When I was sitting in court, often I’d find myself looking at the family, not the victim’s [family], but the accused’s…. Often that was the wife. What does it feel like to be hearing this, to find out stuff about someone you thought you knew? Are you standing by him? What do you know or don’t know?”
(Bookseller, interview with Sarah Shaffi, November 13, 2015)

But the wife? It’s not a static role, remember? This is not The Tale of June Cleaver or The Adventures of Betty Draper. These stories are aiming elsewhere.

“My wife was no longer my wife but a razor-wire knot daring me to unloop her, and I was not up to the job with my thick, numb, nervous fingers.”

“But I can’t believe … She wasn’t unhappy with me. She wasn’t. She wasn’t.’ When he says it the third time, I wonder whether he’s trying to convince himself. ‘But if she was having an affair, she must have been unhappy, mustn’t she?’”

“I can’t do this, I can’t just be a wife. I don’t understand how anyone does it – there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that, or look around for something to distract you.”

But is the un-wife really such a remarkable character? Are the trajectories of these plots so integrally different from stories of years past?

Consider Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. These female characters offer complexity and contradictions, challenge expectations and norms, and embody the un-wife.

Hawkins Girl on TrainSo perhaps the appeal of these novels in the Gone Girl vein isn’t so much the narrators after all. I think their appeal is connected to a more fundamental element, the questions that niggle in the backs of our minds about trust.

As Fiona Barton writes: “The imagination is such as powerful tool, suggestion is all you need,” she says. “People fill in gaps. It is much more chilling if you’re doing it yourself, if you don’t have it laid out.”

What do we readers make of the gaps in our lives? They’re everywhere in these novels. Some characters identify them others create them.

“I sometimes leave out details like that. It’s more convenient for me. In truth, I wanted her to read my mind so I didn’t have to stoop to the womanly art of articulation. I was sometimes as guilty of playing the figure-me-out game as [she] was. I’ve left that bit of information out too.”

Beneath all of it?

“There’s nothing so painful, so corrosive, as suspicion.”

“They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.”

And, perhaps most niggly of all: “People want to believe they know other people. Parents want to believe they know their kids. Wives want to believe they know their husbands.”

These stories aren’t simply about (or for) girls. Or boys. (But would anybody try to market The Boy on the Train?)

These are human stories, dressed in wisps of hair and tendrils of mist. And the archetypal theme of trust/betrayal is not new.

It’s difficult to see how these “girls” really are all that different. Perhaps they are not as selfless, not as consumed by caregiving.  And, yet, they are wholly absorbed by their relationship with a man.

Is it really such a new idea to suggest that allowing one relationship to obliterate all other aspects of one’s life (particularly when it is a troubled relationship) isn’t smart?

Blurred and amorphous, the girls leap from novel to novel, one readily muddled with the next, in a series of entertaining and profitable novels that are as much about following the rules as breaking them.

Have you read any of these? Or, do you plan to read one/some?