Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books, 2017)
I wanted to like Into the Water by Paula Hawkins because I had enjoyed her previous novel, The Girl on the Train, which was a suspenseful thriller. However, when I finished reading the first part of the Into the Water, I realized that I had not absorbed anything that was happening in the story. I blamed myself for not paying attention to what I was reading due to personal distractions, and decided to do something that I had never done with a novel before; I started reading the book from the beginning.
Promising to give the book my full attention on the second go around, I did something else that I had never done before. I created a chart so that I could remember who each character was in relationship to the other characters. As I did this, I wondered, “If the reader has to keep a list of characters in order to remember who is who, there's a problem with the book (unless of course, the author is George R. R. Martin, creator of the Game of Thrones series, who has to keep a complex chart for himself just to keep clear on who's who).”
So I pondered, “What is the problem with this novel?” and came to the conclusion that there are several issues that a good editor should have realized and insisted that the writer fix. The story could have been intriguing. The novel is about women who have been turning up dead in a place referred to as “the Beckford Drowning Pool.” As Nel Abbott, one of the characters who lives near the ominous spot, explained in a book that she was researching when she became a victim of drowning, “This is the place that, over centuries, has claimed the lives of Libby Beeton, Mary Marsh, Anne Ward, Ginny Thomas, Lauren Slater, Katie Whittaker, and more---countelss others, nameless and faceless.” (p. 41)
Obviously, the major theme of the novel is “women as victims,” which again is currently popular, largely to the “Me Too” movement. So we have the potential of good story, some history, and a contemporary theme.
A truly engaging story has to have characters in whom the reader invests, whether we love them or despise them. (If you have never read The Third Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders, check out the villain, Daniel Blank, and tell me that he isn't one of the most riveting characters to ever appear in a thriller. Or consider Hannibel Lecter in Thomas Harris's The Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, a truly creepy figment of Harris's imagination). Character development is the first aspect in which Paula Hawkins fails in Into the Water.
But that is only part of the novel's problem. Hawkins follows the current vogue of telling the story via multiple character point of view, which is becoming a trite vehicle for narration. Each chapter, which reveals a piece of the story from the perspective of one of the characters, is only two to four pages long. Then Hawkins jumps to another character, and then another (which explains the need for a character chart). The narrative is jumpy and prevents us from ever getting to know the most important piece, what motivates the people in the tale to do the things that they do?
I think we are supposed to be sad because a teenage girl named Katie Whittaker died in the Drowning Pool. I wasn't. I didn't feel too badly for Katie's crazy mother, either as she grieved for her lost child. I should have. I should have liked Lena Abbott, Katie's best friend. I didn't. In fact, I felt very little. I think I was at least supposed to have been interested in Julia (call me Jules) Abbott, aunt of Lena and estranged sister of Nel Whittaker. I wasn't. I think you get the point. There was really no one in whom to invest. Therefore, due to the lack of character development, the story never gelled properly.
Into the Water is a big disappointment, sorry to report. I would suggest to Paula Hawkins that if she wishes to continue as a New York Times best selling author, she may want to consider joining a writers' group or getting a keener editor.