The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is a twisty thriller narrated by three different struggling, unreliable women. Our main character, Rachel, is an alcoholic who rides the train every morning, catching glimpses of the lives of a couple along her route. One day, the woman, Megan, disappears and Rachel feels like she needs to do something. Complicating her quest is the presence of Anna, the woman who helped send Rachel’s life spinning out of control.
It’s a page-turning read, and a perfect jumping off point for some great books that explore ideas of both madness and forgiveness in this installment of nonfiction recommendations. Because this post assumes you’ve read The Girl on the Train – or don’t plan to read it at all – there are some small spoilers ahead. Spoiler-phobes, beware!
One of the best and most complicated things about The Girl on the Train is that our main character, Rachel, spends so much of the novel not being able to trust her own mind. The fact that she is an alcoholic, prone to periods of blackout drunkenness, means her perceptions and memories for many important events are warped or nonexistent.
Journalist Susannah Cahalan would have this in common with Rachel. In her memoir Brain on FIre, Cahalan recounts her experience losing a month of her life as a result of a terrifying autoimmune disorder. At 24 years old, Cahalan had just started her first post-college job and was excited to embark on a new relationship. But she started to suffer from strange symptoms – migraines, paranoia, loss of feeling in parts of her body and, eventually, memory loss and seizures.
Afraid, Cahalan was admitted to a hospital where she continued to become more and more delusional. Her last memory before “waking up” a month later is being strapped to a hospital bed for her own safety. In the book, Cahalan reconstructs her “month of madness” and tries to understand this experience where she interacted with and was affected by the world, but she simply can’t recount. It’s fascinating and scary.
The second book isn’t one that reminds me of any of the women in this book, but is instead a book I wish that I could get all of them to read – Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.
Before Strayed wrote her fierce and wonderful memoir Wild, she wrote an advice column for The Rumpus called Dear Sugar. In the column, Strayed as Sugar answered all sorts of questions about love, life, death and being empathetic and courageous. Tiny Beautiful Things collects many of her best Dear Sugar columns, as well as some new pieces, together in one book. While I’ve never experienced many of the questions that Strayed addresses, reading this book gave me some profound, important insight into my own life. I know that Strayed would have wonderful, kind, no-nonsense things to tell Rachel and Anna and Megan.