The Girl on the Train, Blogging, and the Whole Story

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the girl on the train paula hawkins

I heard about The Girl on the Train on NPR; I caught the last bit of an interview with the author Paula Hawkins and was interested. I had finished the second book in the Outlander series and was looking for a change of pace before I delved into the third. I listened to The Girl on the Train via Audible on my commute to and from work and ended up not just with a change of pace from Dragonfly in Amber, but a new perspective on blogging, social media, and its audience.

The Girl on the Train is a thriller, very reminiscent of Gone Girl, but it’s also a great example of how looks can be deceiving and what happens when people become invested in the lives of strangers. Rachel Watson is a lonely, lost woman; she's recently divorced and her life is a mess. She takes the train every day, and every day she passes the same row of houses next to the tracks. One is her old house, still inhabited by her ex and now accompanied by his new wife and baby; but the one that interests Rachel is a few doors down. A couple lives there, a couple that she sees as perfect. She doesn’t know them, but she imagines their lives between glimpses of them sipping wine or coffee on their patio or rooftop terrace. In her head she imagines their relationship, their professions, their hobbies; she even creates names for them – Jason and Jess. When tragedy strikes, Rachel ends up being involved in the life of this couple and realizes they aren’t the people in her morning commute fantasies.

Unlike bloggers and social media celebs, Jason and Jess don’t realize they have an audience. But like bloggers, what Rachel the audience sees is only a snippet of their life and she is making the decision to fill in the blanks.

While listening to this book, I couldn’t help but think about how bloggers and Internet personalities are analyzed, criticized, and sometimes idolized. I see on Twitter, on message boards, and on fan/hate blogs how people like Rachel Watson in The Girl on the Train make the decision to fill in the blanks. That somehow, if one looked hard enough at the photos chosen by a blogger for their blog or how a paragraph is phrased they can determine if someone is having an affair, miserable at their job, upset that she can’t conceive, a terrible friend, a neglectful parent. Or the opposite, that by examining one’s Instagram account enough one can determine if someone’s husband really loves her, she’s such a nice and giving person, or she’s a really good mother.

The thing is you don’t know why someone chooses to share what they do. Maybe all the pictures turned out terrible except the one where she’s looking down at the ground. Maybe she always wears sunglasses because even after all these years she’s still awkward in front of the camera and the oversized shades hide her deer in the headlights gaze. Maybe she doesn’t share her husband on Instagram because he’s uncomfortable being photographed.  Maybe the post was written in a rush before the baby woke from his nap and she hit publish before proofing.  And maybe she knows how to play the game and sees from her analytics that she makes more sales when she has that smug smile than when she shows her teeth, or that when she writes something controversial she gets more pageviews, more hate followers, more fame, and more money.

The Girl on the Train is a good reminder that with those we follow on the Internet, and even those we know in real life, we make assumptions and fill in the blanks. And often, our assumptions are dead wrong.

I’m not saying getting invested in a blogger, vlogger, or even reality show star is a bad idea. I love blogs, and I have many favorite bloggers and personalities on social media, some who have become friends in real life and some who feel like a friend though I have never met them and likely never will. This isn’t bad, the Internet is a way to not feel so alone or unusual, to connect and relate to others across the globe. To find kindred spirits and gain inspiration. But it’s important to remember you don’t really know them, you only know what they choose for you to know and through the filter they have picked. It’s entertainment, it’s art, but it’s never the whole story.

The Girl on the Train was a well-written psychological thriller. I don’t want to share much more because it’s definitely the type of novel that is more enjoyable when you have no idea what happens before you start reading. And it’s clear I enjoyed how stereotypical characters were proven to be far more complex than originally thought; something that holds true for everyone you meet in real life, and on the Internet.

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. Sold! A lot of people have been buzzing about this book so I’ve been curious. But like Gracey said, your review sold me! I agree… Instagram/Twitter and social media feed into our inherit human habit of envying others or thinking the grass is always greener. But we forget that it’s what that person wants to put out in public. They want you to think they’re having the perfect breakfast. I try to remember that when I feel that sense of envy coming on. I appreciate you keep it real 🙂

  2. I found this post really interesting and went out and got the book. Last night I started reading and practically couldn’t stop!

    I like your thoughts on this topic, really insightfull.

  3. This sound like a good book to read, I will have to add it to my list. I was raised to never air your dirty laundry and don’t say anything if you have nothing nice to say and pretty much keep that motto on my blog. I can see how sharing those “perfect” photos on IG you would think someone had a much more exciting life than I do. But I will take my not so perfect life over any other “perfect” picture moment.


  4. Super great post and exceptionally well written. You have articulated some of the thoughts I have been having lately, especially about what we may wish to reveal and/or conceal. And what others want us to reveal or conceal. Thanks for reminding everyone, they do not know and should not make assumptions about the choices people make. Some people have diagnosed me as depressed or sour because I do not smile in my pictures. I got a great response to this from Victoria Beckham when she was asked about her not not smiling. She said, “I am smiling on the inside”. What we choose to reveal or conceal is up to us as artists and creatives because that is what we are about.

    I love books like this and it is on my list.

    Accidental Icon

  5. Interesting – I heard that same interview on NPR and was intrigued, but feared the book might be really gruesome or upsetting (I don’t do well with a lot of violence or horror). Thanks for sharing!

  6. Completely agree with you and one of the main reasons I love sharing my Vent Sesh pots. People see a smiling girl and don’t know the heartache, people see you post your kids on Facebook and didn’t hear the screams and whines that immediately followed that sweet, innocent little pic. There’s so much good that comes from blogging, social media — like me having the amazing opportunity to ‘meet’ you! — yet the perception that others lives are so much better or whatnot is such crap. I hate that part. I’ve been following Humans of New York on Facebook; so refreshing. We’re only seeing one part of people’s lives but it’s just so raw and honest.

  7. I bought “Gone Girl” on the recommendation of the Spin instructor at the YMCA but I never read it. Then I saw the movie and have lost all motivation to actually read the book. I should have read it first.

    This book sounds like an interesting story. I am a mystery hound, so I’ll give it a whirl.
    You segued it into blogger-land very astutely, you get a high mark for this book review!

  8. I like your thoughts on this. And thanks for the read option. Funny, we are in the same reading sequence. I just finished Dragonfly in Amber (I am re-reading the series after many years) and also needed a change of pace. I opted for The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen’s Emma, a recent free download from BookBub.com. I am enjoying the story so far as it picks up where Emma leaves off, and although so far there’s no sign of a mystery, it’s definitely a change of pace!

  9. Sounds like a great read/listen. I was just talking to my friend and fellow blogger Judith of Style Crone, about what we keep private on our blogs. We are authentic, I believe, in what we choose to write and show, but there’s much we don’t reveal (that’s true in every relationship, even good friendships, even marriage, in different proportions). I’ve never thought “Be yourself” had to include “Let it all hang out.” xox

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