Wednesday, May 16, 2012. One year earlier. Megan Hipwell—whom Rachel knows as Jess—sits on her patio drinking coffee as the morning train stops just below her garden. Megan is annoyed by the train—it interrupts her fantasy of basking in the sun on the beach somewhere far away. As Megan listens to the train roll past, she wishes she were on it. As she hears the sound of her husband Scott calling out to her and asking if she wants another coffee, she feels the spell of her fantasy break.
By introducing another character and letting her narrate her own story—set one year before the start of Rachel’s—Hawkins varies and deepens the portraits of women on the brink that she seeks to convey throughout the novel. Megan, like Rachel, has a desire for escape that directly ties in with the symbol of trains. It’s clear that there is more to Megan there Rachel assumes—a secret unhappiness lurking below her outwardly idyllic life.
That evening, Megan sits on the porch again, enjoying a martini. She reflects on her day—earlier, while working on an application to a fabrics course, she was distracted by a woman’s horrible screams coming from down the street. She ran out to the garden—and though she couldn’t see anything happening down the road in the other yard, she heard a woman begging another person to give her baby back. Megan ran up to the terrace and looked down to see two women, a few gardens over, fighting over a small child. At last, one woman carried the baby inside while the other stumbled around the garden in circles. The incident, Megan feels, is the most excitement she’s had in weeks. Now that she doesn’t have her art gallery, which recently closed down, her days are empty—she hates being a “happily married suburbanite.”
Megan clearly loathes having a simple, quiet life as a “happily married suburbanite.” She wants to do something and be somebody—and, as this passage shows, she loves controversy, drama, and excitement. Megan, as a character who longs for the uncertain and the unknown, is a contrast against Rachel, a character who has resigned herself to the same old mistakes and patterns day in and day out. Meanwhile, given that Tom and Anna live a few doors away from Megan and Scott, it’s significant that the incident with the two women and the baby happened down the street. This subtly hints that Anna may be the mother that Megan saw.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012. Megan gets dressed simply—even shabbily—to go to her new day job as a nanny for the people down the road. Bored and curious after the incident in May, Megan took the childminding job at number 23. Scott was excited, hoping being around a baby so much would make Megan want to have one of her own—but so far, the job has had the opposite effect. Megan misses her job at the gallery and resents spending so much time with a child.
Indeed, this passage confirms that the incident happened at number 23. The reader can thus infer that Anna was the woman begging for her baby back, and Rachel was likely the woman fighting with her. (The odd, stumbling behavior that Megan observed is consistent with an intoxicated person.) Hawkins shows that even as Megan takes a job as a nanny, she resists admitting to any maternal instincts and in fact wants to distance herself from the idea of motherhood as much as possible. The novel will continue to focus on the ways in which Megan, Rachel, and Anna each struggle with society’s ideas of how women should act—and of how motherhood should be a part of their lives.
Thursday, August 16, 2012. Megan quits her job as a nanny for Anna and Tom Watson—finally, she feels free. She worries that Scott will be mad at her—but as a self-proclaimed “mistress of self-reinvention,” Megan only feels excitement about what role she’ll inhabit next. She decides to tell Scott that she quit because Tom was hitting on her in order to prevent him from being angry with her for giving up the job.
Megan’s description of herself as a “mistress of self-reinvention” characterizes her as flighty and restless spirit. Her inability to play just one simple role makes her independent and unpredictable—and thus, by society’s standards of how women should be have, dangerous.
Thursday, September 20, 2012. After a sleepless night, Megan feels itchy and restless; she wishes that she could shave her head or take a trip. She misses her big brother, Ben, who always told her that they’d ride their motorbikes all around the world: from Paris to Spain, down the Pacific Coast of the U.S., and throughout South America. Ben, however, died in a motorcycle accident when he was still a teenager. Megan has never gotten over his death—and when she feels especially sad about it, she has to fight the impulse to run away. She has decided to begin seeing a therapist—Scott recently suggested it after noticing how little she’s been sleeping. Megan, however, feels that her sleeping problems are tied to her dissatisfaction with being merely someone’s wife.
Hawkins begins delving more deeply into the source of Megan’s restlessness and the traumas she carries with her. Megan doesn’t want to be possessed or tied down, and there is a part of her that still longs for the total freedom that her late brother once promised her. Her dissatisfaction with her role as a housewife is something she keeps hidden, which doesn’t bode well for her relationship with Scott or for her own mental health.
After a long wait at the office, Megan finally meets with her new therapist: Dr. Kamal Abdic. Throughout the introductory appointment, Megan finds herself deeply attracted to the handsome therapist. As Abdic asks Megan about alcohol use and whether she abuses drugs, Megan slyly says that she has “other vices.” That evening, when she arrives home, Scott asks her how the appointment went and whether she talked to the therapist about Ben. Megan pities Scott, who foolishly believes that all her problems stem from her brother’s death.
Megan is cagey and defensive with all the men in her life—she doesn’t want to tell her husband or her therapist about the true root of her problems. This passage suggests that the flightiness and restlessness she feels isn’t just a longing for the time she never got to have with her brother, but a deeper and more existential need within her.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012. Megan wakes up, having finally slept for a few hours. Feeling cooped up, she decides to go for a walk. As she walks through the streets of Witney, she feels out of place and judgmental about the sad suburban town and the “Pilates girls” who swarm the streets dressed head-to-toe in the same athleisure outfits. She walks past the space that used to be her gallery and feels sad. She is nervous about running into the Watsons—especially Anna, who still resents her for leaving the nanny job. As Megan approaches an underpass, she feels a little chill as she peers into the dark, but she steels herself and walks through.
Megan is dissatisfied with her life and all its trappings; she doesn’t want to become like the other women around her whom she views as superficial and conforming. She would rather stick out than fit in—and as this passage symbolically shows, she’d rather take the road less traveled, even when it’s clear that this impulse takes her down dark or even dangerous paths.
Later that evening, Scott is late coming home from work. Megan begins feeling jittery and antsy waiting for him to arrive home, so she decides to go out for another walk down the street. As she approaches the underpass again, she hears the train run overhead. As she comes through the other side, she sees a man she knows pass her in his car. He smiles at her through the window.
This passage suggests that Megan is easily tempted away from stability and safety by the promise of something new and thrilling, as symbolized by the train. It’s unclear who the man in the car is—but given Megan’s self-professed reputation as a “mistress of self-reinvention,” there’s likely more to their relationship than meets the eye.