The breakaway success of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train – and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl before it – seems to have sent publishers scrabbling through their slush piles, snatching up any story with a suitably dodgy narrator they can shove onto the bandwagon.
Just as Stephenie Meyer launched a thousand supernatural YA novels, just as E. L. James launched… whatever she launched, Hawkins has crammed the shelves full of unreliable narrators, women who don’t want to go into their shady pasts or tell us what they’re taking all that medication for.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. (It’s hard to argue you shouldn’t be publishing books people clearly want to read, after all.) Just because one author has hit success with a certain thought or theme or gimmick doesn’t mean another writer can’t riff off the idea to come up with something new and interesting.
Look at Ruth Ware’s The Girl in Cabin 10; Ware delights in playing with our expectations and assumptions about the reliability of her narrator. She takes the concept and does something different with it. She never gives the impression she’s rushing to satisfy the public, to fill a demand.
Sadly, that story was a whole other review. And I can’t apply the same praise to this one.
Don’t get me wrong. Helen Callaghan’s debut novel Dear Amy isn’t bad. It has an interesting set-up – a missing school girl, letters from a twenty-year-old cold case being sent to the local paper’s agony aunt. It has a location – Cambridge – I haven’t seen much of in novels, especially thrillers. It runs a social commentary on the behaviour and personas we put on, especially as teenagers:
Girls like Amber play the Lauras and Sorchas of this world against each other, to bring out their worst selves.
But it’s also not good. The solution to the mystery is clear from the outset, both to the other characters and to us, which makes the slow-burn reveal in the final act excruciating. The story is bogged down with minutiae about the narrator’s life – her divorce, her job, a doodle her friend drew – which don’t add to the mystery or, ultimately, the story. There might be an argument that the whole thing’s just a character study, a look at one particularly interesting woman’s life – if the novel didn’t open with, and repeatedly jump back to, a teenage girl being held captive by a serial rapist and murderer.
I mean… That kind of steals focus away from the troubles of teaching Jane Eyre and funny quips from Lily, the broadly drawn rom-com best friend with a let’s-open-a-bottle-of-wine-solution-to-everything.
That feels like the problem of the whole novel: it doesn’t know where to focus. It’s not sure what it wants to be.
Watch out! From here on out, this post containers spoilers.
Too many perspectives, and still not enough
We open with Katie Browne, running away from home mid-teenage-tantrum when she’s grabbed by a strange man. Then we skip ahead a few weeks, switching perspective to our protagonist, Katie’s old teacher Margot, who also writes the advice column for the local paper.
That’s fine – whatever. Writers often feel they have to open in action for the sake of opening in action. We probably won’t see Katie aga- oh, no, the next chapter is from her point of view.
(It actually took me a moment to realise that since the chapter starts with someone called Chris, who we hadn’t met, talking, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between Katie’s third person and Margot’s first from the line, ‘Chris says’.)
The novel jumps back and forth between Margot, worrying about her divorce and her job more than the letters she keeps receiving from Bethan Avery, a girl who went missing twenty years before (and who, we know from some helpful graffiti Katie spots, was held captive by the same man who has her), and the kidnapped Katie.
As much as we should feel tension or worry for Katie, locked in a soundproof basement where she’s scarcely fed and constantly beaten, her scenes just don’t add anything to the story except word count. Yes, we know Bethan was definitely held captive by the same man. But how many pedophilic rapist murderers are there really going to be in Cambridge? Even if we had statistical doubts, we have a criminologist expert who happens to specialise in this very case, who tells us Katie fits the M.O. – we don’t need the confirmation.
It’s fiction, after all; coincidence shouldn’t fall into it.
But Katie’s scenes aren’t the most redundant – that’s the chapter which opens on the Facebook page of a character we never meet or hear about again. It’s a stunted, awkward attempt at writing teenagers in a storyline which never goes anywhere. Callaghan uses a lot of page count for what ultimately boils down to the message: ‘Sometimes teenagers say mean things on the internet’.
If this was something she played round with more – showing how the community responded to Katie’s disappearance, or even trying to set up the ‘mean girls’ in class as a red herring for Katie’s disappearance – it might have made more sense, but it didn’t amount to anything.
It’s just a needless excursion away from the main plot. A trap Callaghan falls into again and again. In the third act, when we should be on the edges of our seats, wrought with tension – we’re not anyway, but that’s beside the point – she leaves the investigation to jump into the mind of Chris, the killer, giving us backstory we don’t need and some half-attempted explanations about why he’s doing this.
It feels abrupt, coming so late in the story, and never manages to actually get inside his mind. There’s some vague hand-waving about having ‘preferences’ and not being able to buy magazines. (Well. That makes perfect sense.) But we don’t learn any more about him than what other characters have already told us. All we really find out is how he kidnapped Bethan Avery. And, frankly, we didn’t need step-by-step instructions.
This is a villain that would have been scarier if we knew less about him, like George Harvey in The Lovely Bones. We know he rapes and murders young girls. We don’t need to know anything else.
The mundane trumps the mystery
But, for all the jumping around, we don’t actually get much story. The important events for the mystery always seem to be glossed over. We don’t see Margot take the letters from the kidnapped girl to the police station. We don’t see her doing a Crimewatch style appeal on TV. We just hear about it afterwards, between complaints about her boss and retellings of her dreams, and worries about having to sell her house as part of divorce proceedings.
It’s all just thoughts. It’s all set-up and anxiety with no pay-off. Sometimes, it feels like Dear Amy forgot it was meant to be a thriller and falls into the mundane day-dream of a middle-aged divorcée – it’ll all go smoothly and I won’t have to pay him anything and his new woman will dump him and I’ll meet someone new!
The lede feels well and truly buried in the sub-plots about Margot’s day-to-day life.
And the unfortunate thing is it could have all been woven in to make a stronger story. Margot’s ex-husband is clearly conniving and not above using women to get what he wants – why not set him up as a red herring? Because if he’s not doing anything to further the story, he shouldn’t be in it at all.
The ‘mean girls’ in class could easily be sending in fake letters – or red herrings that make Margot think they are, in more of an offhand and quickly disputed thought. Instead, they come in to write a few nasty messages on Facebook and then disappear forever.
Katie’s step-dad could be explored. Her mentioned-once ex-boyfriend. The criminologist Martin, who knows a bit too much about Margot and has disturbing pictures he’s not disturbed by. (Callaghan actually does flirt with this idea, but it’s half-hearted at best, a little nod to him knowing what Margot looks like and where she works before they’ve met which is so quickly explained – and never brought up again – that it feels pointless. Margot wonders briefly about the possibility two-hundred pages later, when she’s rejecting the answer the rest of us have been shouting at her – to the annoyance of everyone else on the London Underground, silly moo – and just as quickly rescinds it.)
Instead, the story continuously hauls beaten, abused Katie in front of us, reminding us she’s there and – guys! – she might die before scurrying back to Margot as she reads a book or teaches a class or shops for perfume. Because that is the story we’re really here to read.
It really is. Because the mystery isn’t much of a mystery.
We see Chris, the killer, from the beginning. And it’s clear ‘Chris’ isn’t an alias being used by any of the other characters – something that could have been obscured if Callaghan didn’t insist on the needless scenes with Katie.
And, with so little attention paid to the letters at first – Margot’s visits to the police station completely skipped over – and so many references to Margot’s dark and mysterious past, it doesn’t take us very long to clock onto the fact that Margot is writing herself the letters. Margot is Bethan, the first victim, and Katie’s disappearance is triggering buried memories.
It feels like a cop-out – albeit a cop-out that’s dragged out far longer than it needs to be. And it’s unfortunate; there were a lot of opportunities to make us doubt Margot, as she came off her pills and worried about men following her, if Callaghan didn’t so quickly follow them up with scenes of Margot being attacked by the people who definitely were following her. She could have played around with the idea of Margot as an unreliable narrator. Instead, we got a narrator who was reliable but didn’t remember her entire early life.
All character, no… anything else
There are good ideas in the book that get lost along the way. Writing advice you’ll see quite often is to flesh out characters, and at times it feels like Dear Amy has taken this too much to heart, sacrificing plot and narrative for asides on Margot’s inability to have children and how much she misses her husband while still not wanting to get back with him. It fleshes her out, but that’s all it does. At the end of the book, I felt like I’d gotten to know an interesting person. But there’d been no story.
Compare this to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Through a few conversations and a single flashback scene, Rowling makes me feel as though I know James and Lily Potter, characters who are dead before the series begins. And each book still has individual and over-arcing plots.
Compare it to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series which seems to introduce a new character every five minutes and still manages to make me feel like I know them while having so much story advancing, I actually feel vaguely intimidated by it.
Character is important. And it should drive the story.
But there needs to be a story to drive.
Writing style – or characteristic cuneiform peculiarities
In a book like this, too – primarily told in the first person, in the present tense – the characters should drive the writing, but it often feels like Callaghan wants to show off her word-of-the-day loo roll instead of her character’s emotion.
Margot thinks about teenage mothers, ‘their frustration aggravated as opposed to palliated by the odd benefit payment’.
She describes her boss as being reduced ‘to pusillanimous mumbling’.
She thinks of the voice of the man who kidnapped and abused her, who tried to kill her, and who has caught up with her again – take it as read she’s in a bit of a sticky situation – as having a ‘whispery’ voice, ‘borderline obsequious’.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be rating someone’s obsequiousness in that particular moment.
It’s too much, throwing you out of the moment and the scene as you wonder what on earth she’s trying to drive at.
And this sesquipedalian writing (eh? Eh?) just doesn’t seem to fit – sure, Margot’s a teacher, but teachers don’t get paid anywhere near well enough to be throwing around those five dollar words.
And Callaghan’s guilty of writing flowery, overly poetic descriptions when she’s in fifteen-year-old Katie’s point of view:
…she also knows that to allow yourself hope us to invite her twin, despair
I was as overly dramatic and pseudo-intellectual as the next teenager at that age, but I’m pretty sure even I would have drawn the line at the emotions-as-relatives metaphor while I was chained in a killer’s basement.
There would have been other things on my mind.
Dear Amy isn’t a bad book. I’ve certainly read worse. (Ahem, Lev Grossman.) But I think that’s what’s so frustrating about it. There are interesting ideas that aren’t explored, sacrificed for sub-plots which don’t feed into the main story, don’t pay-off, and don’t add anything to what could have been a much better novel.
It’s a character study which shouldn’t have tried to pass itself as a thriller. It’s a soft, psychological look at a person that mistakenly got lobbed in with the mysteries.
It’s not what you think it’s going to be – and, in this case, that’s a bad thing.
If you’re looking for the next The Girl on the Train, keep looking.