Several years ago, I taught Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as part of a course called “What We’re Reading Now.” At the time, I saw it as a response to life in America after the economic bust of 2008. But since then, I’ve started to wonder if it reflects a different kind of cultural trend. This rethinking is largely based on a couple of “copy-cat” novels, notably The Good Girl by Mary Kubica, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. All three have moody, blurry greyish hardback covers. All three utilize names and dates in their chapter titles, referring to journal entries or the times of particular recollections and the individual to whom they are attributed. But most notably, all three feature an unreliable female narrator, the “girl” of the title. The extent to which they are unreliable varies: Flynn’s girl is a manipulative sociopath, while Kubica’s, though still a liar, is more sympathetic and has an almost defensible reason for her lies. The girl on the train, the most sympathetic of the three, is an alcoholic who has blackouts.
Whether the inclusion of “girl” in the title of these later novels is an attempt to capitalize on the success of Flynn’s book is debatable; but either way, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. There seems to be something about using the word girl in the title that attracts attention. This is in spite of the fact that none of the titular girls are, in fact, girls—two are in their mid-twenties, the third in her mid-thirties. They are intelligent, educated and could be employable if not for their unreliability. They are women, yet I suspect to call them that would diminish the appeal of the books. Can you imagine a novel called Gone Woman? Why wouldn’t that sell? There are probably several reasons, none of which have anything to do with alliteration.
Perhaps it is because none of these characters act like mature women, despite their age. Perhaps it is because the word “girl” carries with it the promise of something still unfolding, unpredictable, maybe even uncontrollable. Perhaps this is what makes the three main characters unreliable narrators—an as of yet unformed sense of self, an unstable moral compass. The reason I’ve been thinking about it is that recently, while I was working at the Scholastic Book fair at my daughter’s school (she is in first grade), I came across a book titled Girl, Stolen about a sick, blind girl who is taken while sitting in the back seat of her mother’s car. My blood ran cold: same kind of title, same kind of cover, similar premise, but this time marketed to actual girls.
Naturally, I bought the book. When the other volunteer rang it up, she got a warning message that the book contained “mature content” (don’t worry, it’s for me—I promise!). I won’t lie about being concerned. It’s one thing (and perhaps not a good thing) to use the notion of girlhood to connote unreliability to adult readers. But I wonder what the implications are for girls who are themselves in the throes of that liminal time? I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet—perhaps I will be surprised and it will turn the conventions of this emerging mini-genre on its head and give us a clear-headed young woman who finds a way to save herself and thus paves her own way to a mature adulthood. At least that’s what I hope. If not, you can be sure my daughter won’t be reading it anytime soon…