INTO THE WATER by Paula Hawkins
CBTB Rating: 2.5/5
The Verdict: not for crime readers - better as literary or women's fiction
I've been sitting on this review for a little while now, not wanting to admit that a book as highly anticipated as INTO THE WATER just didn't work for me. But it's just the truth: INTO THE WATER didn't work for me. I went into this book intentionally trying not to have expectations for it; after all, following up a record-breaking bestseller like THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is an almost unthinkable task for author Paula Hawkins. Unfortunately, I still managed to be disappointed by this read. Lacking in the drive and energy that made THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN such an addictive read, INTO THE WATER might be better appreciated as women's fiction or literary fiction rather than crime fiction. But of course, bear in mind that I'm writing this review from a crime fiction perspective, for readers who will see the name Paula Hawkins and think "psychological thriller"—so I can only be honest: this book won't hold up against Hawkins' debut, and won't suit crime readers looking for a similarly twisty, addictive, and taut read.
Plot Synopsis (from the publisher):
"A single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate. They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged.
Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother's sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she'd never return.
With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.
Beware a calm surface—you never know what lies beneath."
Let’s start with the positives—because truly, there is quite a bit to be admired about Hawkins’ sophomore novel. INTO THE WATER has a fascinating quasi-historical fiction streak that runs through it, and the book seemed to find its footing best when Hawkins delves into this storyline. The deceased woman whose body is found at the start of this novel, Nel, has spent her life fascinated by water—and not just any water, but the particular body of water in her hometown which has claimed the lives of many local women. In life, Nel was researching the history of this body of water, and compiling a book based on her findings. Readers are privy to “excerpts” from the book interspersed throughout INTO THE WATER, and I actually enjoyed these “excerpts” most of all throughout the book.
Without spoiling their content, I found myself riveted by the glimpses into the history of women at different periods of time that Hawkins provides through these journal entries; in particular, I was equal parts horrified and gripped by an “excerpt” dealing with a woman being tried for witchcraft in the water. I’m not a reader of historical fiction, but I actually wish that Hawkins had delved even further into this vein of the story—it was original, visceral, and impactful.
Beyond that particular strength of the book, Hawkins’ writing is undeniably stunning throughout INTO THE WATER. She paints vivid descriptions of the town and the particular locales within it, and crafts characters who are all the more lifelike for their quirks and idiosyncracies. Hawkins is simply a beautiful writer—love or hate the story, that's undeniable.
Unfortunately, INTO THE WATER lacks the drive and energy that made THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN so compulsively readable. Truly, I think readers looking for literary fiction or women’s fiction might find INTO THE WATER more up their alley than crime fiction readers will. INTO THE WATER can be considered a character study, where the “character” is a town with a dark past. This might suit some readers, but I was disappointed to discover that the mystery and suspense elements of this story take a backseat in INTO THE WATER. As a reader picking this book up and hoping for a gripping mystery, I was sorely disappointed. INTO THE WATER might be beautifully written, but it moves slowly, and drags the reader through an almost unnecessary amount of perspective-changes and narrator-swaps. These elements that might be inventive or experimental in literary fiction or women’s fiction just do not translate into compelling crime writing.
My number one issue with this book was the confusion within the cast of characters Hawkins has created. The sheer number of characters who take turns narrating this story is overdone and cumbersome—I found myself having to go back and remind myself of the characters’ roles in the story many more times than I cared to. This might be great for painting a portrait of the town in which the story is set - readers certainly get a complete picture of the town’s inhabitants - but it undermines any potential tension that Hawkins seeks to create. A moderate amount of intriguing and vague connections between characters can be a great thing; too much and the reader can’t possibly be expected to piece together their own theories about the mystery at the book’s core.
INTO THE WATER unfortunately had a number of oddities that made it incredibly difficult for me to become invested in the story’s core mystery. Without spoiling anything, I will say that I didn’t find the explanations behind some of the pivotal actions in this book remotely believable. From long-held grudges that could have been explained with one simple communication to exaggerated or irrational responses to secrets being unveiled, I just didn’t buy into the most crucial actions at the heart of this story. I'm always happy to take fiction with a grain of salt - it goes without saying that authors have creative license to explore their characters' personalities however they see fit - but I do need a certain amount of psychological astuteness to really love a crime book, and I found that lacking in INTO THE WATER.
More than anything else, INTO THE WATER will be about expectations. My expectations were evidently not aligned well with this story—I truly expected that this book would at least have the pacing and masterful mystery-based plotting of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. While I totally admire Hawkins for taking INTO THE WATER in a completely different direction, I remain unconvinced that this book will be the best choice for crime readers. You will enjoy this story more than I did if you want a slower-paced, brooding piece of fiction that isn’t as much about solving a crime as it is about painting a portrait of a town with a dark past. There's much to admire and enjoy about this book for readers with expectations different from my own. INTO THE WATER is beautifully written and vividly told, but it’s just not great crime fiction.
Book Details: INTO THE WATER by Paula Hawkins
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books (May 2, 2017)
Find INTO THE WATER on Amazon.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.