Friday, July 19, 2013. Rachel rides the quiet 8:04 train feeling light, refreshed, and more like her old self than she has in a long time. She still hasn’t had a drink in days, even though she’s increasingly anxious about not having heard back from Scott. This morning, however, Gaskill called to ask Rachel to come to the station to answer some questions. Rachel is desperate to remember what happened on Saturday night before meeting with the police again—and she is so worried she won’t be able to that she’s considering having a drink.
Rachel’s alcoholism has deep roots in her self-loathing, which stems from being unable to live up to society’s ideals of femininity and motherhood. As Rachel’s problem has worsened and morphed, however, she has come to realize that she craves a drink whenever the world becomes too much to deal with. Rachel no longer wants to just numb herself—she wants to escape from the world entirely and ignore the pressing anxieties, mysteries, and dangers all around her.
That evening, Rachel gives in and buys a case of canned gin and tonics. Earlier, she met with Detective Gaskill, who showed her pictures of several men and asked her to identify the man she saw on the balcony with Megan just before Megan’s disappearance. Rachel pointed to the picture of the man whom she believes Megan was kissing. As she was leaving the station, she passed Scott Hipwell in the corridor—the brush filled her with fear and excitement. Rachel is now treating herself to the drinks because she feels joyful about being so useful in the investigation—she feels she is going to be happy, fulfilled, and on her way to recovery very soon.
Earlier, Rachel wanted to use drinking as an escape from her anxieties and fears or a kind of numbing agent—now, however, she uses excitement as an excuse to drink. This demonstrates that Rachel’s alcoholism is no longer completely attached to any one desire or emotion: drinking is a habit, and one Rachel cannot shake.
Saturday, July 20, 2013. Rachel wakes up hungover again—she feels the familiar combination of disorientation, shame, and desperation to remember what she did the night before. As she opens her laptop, she remembers: last night, she emailed Tom. After a shower and a cup of tea, Rachel opens the email and faces her nasty words about Anna: in the email, she urged Tom to tell Anna to stop lying to the police and telling them that Rachel is “obsessed with her and her ugly brat.” Rachel is ashamed and angry with herself; Tom used to tell her that she can get cruel and nasty when she blacks out.
This passage shows that when Rachel drinks, she becomes a different version of herself. Rachel’s verbal attack on Anna and Evie—calling Evie an “ugly brat”—demonstrates her anger and shame at being unable to mother a child herself. Rachel who becomes aggressive and cruel when she drinks, and she may be responsible for additional mean, brutish actions that she hasn’t yet recalled. The reader is meant to cast doubt upon Rachel and think of her as unpredictable and unreliable, as this makes the story’s web of secrets and lies even more mysterious.
Rachel recalls the day last summer when she went to Tom and Anna’s and took their baby, Evie, out into the garden, down near the train tracks. She was drunk but not blacked out—and she knows she did not intend to hurt the baby. After Anna found Rachel in the garden, she took the baby back and called Tom, who drove Rachel home and squeezed her arm the whole way, threatening to kill her if she hurt his daughter. Remembering this incident—combined with the embarrassing email she sent last night—makes Rachel want to spend the whole day drinking.
Rachel bringing Evie down to the train tracks while drunk seems, from the outside, like a dangerous or malicious act. But the reader knows that Rachel uses of alcohol to numb the pain of being unable to conceive—and she see trains as a symbol of escape, adventure, and a new life. It’s clear, then, that Rachel’s actions with Evie were rooted in a place of sadness and longing, not destruction or cruelty.
Rachel realizes she has a new email—not from Tom, but from Scott. As Rachel scrolls through the email, she finds that she sent a second message to Scott after her first one. Scott agrees to meet with Rachel—but Rachel is mortified to have drawn him in under false pretenses. She feels that she has, once again, been “defeated by […] the person [she is] when [drunk.]”
Rachel messaging Scott under the guise of being Megan’s acquaintance was a drunken bid for connection to the case. Now, however, Rachel will have to compound the lie she’s told with more lies in order to keep up the charade she’s created. Meanwhile, Rachel’s reflection that she was “defeated by the person she is when she’s drunk” further emphasizes the extent to which alcohol influences her thoughts and behavior. Rachel’s sober self and drunk self are so different that they seem like two different people to her.
That evening, Rachel takes the train to Witney to meet with Scott. As she approaches the suburb, she feels as if she is “driving off a cliff”—it occurs to her for the first time that Scott is a murder suspect who has a potential motive for killing his wife. Rachel feels bad for getting wrapped up in the excitement of the investigation and forgetting that Megan is a real person: beloved yet flawed, imperfect as so many people are.
Rachel realizes that she is getting in over her head, even as she deepens her own collection of secrets and lies. She finds herself frightened by what the secrets she’ll uncover at the Hipwell house will reveal to her about the “golden” couple she’s long watched from afar.