Please be forewarned, the following review does contain spoilers. Please also be aware that this novel and this review mention several subjects which may be triggering to many readers, including, but not limited to, suicide and sexual assault.
Much like her previous novel, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, made waves with its release on May 2nd of this year. Coming off the success of The Girl on the Train and its movie adaptation starring Emily Blunt, as you can imagine, the hype surrounding Into the Water was real. For weeks leading up to its release and then immediately following, I felt like I couldn’t open Instagram or Twitter without seeing that watery blue cover staring back at me. I eventually gave into the hype because I am a mere, weak mortal and purchased Hawkins’s new novel to give it a read.
Into the Water is a mystery/thriller/psychological suspense novel about the events following the death of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, whose body is found in a river, in an area aptly named the “Drowning Pool”, which only brought up thoughts of the band every time I read it.
Nel’s death—and the fact that it happened in the river—is significant for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is that a young teenage girl who was friends with Nel’s daughter actually died in the same river only months ago. Before the deaths of Nel and Katie, apparently this particular “Drowning Pool” area of the river was the site of the death of several women in the town’s history, and Nel had been working on a book about these women, their untimely deaths, and their relation to the water. Part of the mystery revolves around the question of whether or not Nel’s delving into the town’s past could be related to her death, as well as whether or not she took her own life versus becoming the victim of a violent crime. But in addition to the mystery of Nel’s death, the book also delves into the mystery of Katie’s death, so if you like mystery, there is a whole hell of a lot of it happening in this novel.
One of the first things I like to take a look at when reviewing or assessing a book is the point of view, as the point of view can have such a major impact on the way the story is told. But in this case, I’m going to need you to hold on tight, because the discussion of points of view in Into the Water is not only a wild ride, it’s also one of my biggest criticisms—if not the biggest criticism—of the book.
Let me be clear about something before I get into my breakdown of this whole point of view situation: I do like books with more than one point of view. Love them. When done well, I think having a story told from multiple points of view can be dynamic, enriching, and enlightening to a story. So this is not coming from the perspective of someone who believes that books should only have one point of view. Not at all.
But there is such a thing as taking it too far, and I think Into the Water did just that.
This story is told from no less than eleven points of view. Yes, you read that right. There are almost a dozen points of view represented in this book.
We get this story from the point of view of Jules (adamant that it is Jules, not Julia) Abbott, who is the estranged sister of the Drowning Pool’s most recent victim, as well as the point of view of Lena Abbott, who is the daughter of Nel Abbott, and the best friend of Katie (the Drowning Pool’s other most recent victim). At this point, with Jules’s point of view and Lena’s contributions to the story, I was totally on board. It makes perfect sense that we would get to unravel this mystery through the eyes of a sister and a daughter.
Then we have the points of view of two police detectives who are investigating Nel Abbott’s death: Sean Townsend and Erin Morgan.
Okay, that’s pretty sensible, too. It is, after all, a mystery, so it’s perfectly reasonable that we get the POVs of some of the people who are looking into the mystery from a professional standpoint. Got it. Still totally on board.
But in addition to Jules, Lena, Sean, and Erin, we also have the point of view of Louise Whittaker, the mother of Katie, who you may recall was Lena’s best friend, as well as Josh Whittaker, brother of Katie and daughter of Louise. Then we have chapters from the POV of Nickie Sage, who is pretty clearly set up as the “Resident Weird Lady” of the town: an old woman with a penchant for all black outfits who claims she can communicate with the dead, and that she often hears the voices of the women who died in the Drowning Pool telling her their stories. Incidentally, Nickie is also the sister of a police detective who was on the force back when Sean Townsend’s mother died in the Drowning Pool. Speaking of Sean Townsend, his family members get a say in the story, too: Patrick Townsend, former police chief and Sean Townsend’s father, has chapters from his POV, as well as Helen Townsend, Sean Townsend’s wife.
But we’re not done yet. We also get chapters from the point of view of Mark Henderson, a teacher at the local school (so random, right? We’ll come back to that). And finally, we have chapters that are sort of from Nel Abbott’s POV, but not really, because they are actually chapters from her book that she was writing about all the women who have died in the Drowning Pool, so while these chapters are written in the third person as if they were written by Nel, they are specifically about Libby, Lauren, and Katie (yes, Katie Whittaker).
If looking at all these points of view has already given you a headache, darling, you are not alone.
You don’t need to be Detective Townsend or Detective Morgan to figure out what I think about all these POVs. If my tone hasn’t made it abundantly clear yet, I thought there were way too many. Having this many points of view, for me, really mucked up the story and there was just way too much going on. The problem isn’t that it was confusing or that it was hard to keep track of who was speaking—Hawkins made that very clear and did a fairly good job differentiating between the different characters’ voices and what was going on in their lives. The problem was just that there were so many different points of view happening, I found it way too difficult to actually get invested in any of them. The chapters were extremely short, so by the time we got involved in a person’s thoughts and ideas, we were already switching to another, and if you’re anything like me, wondering why this person was a part of the story at all. The overwhelming number of POVs shared here really detracted from the potential impact of the story, as well as detracting from the mystery itself. It’s the equivalent of surrounding a house with eight stationary video cameras as well as circling the same house with four cameras attached to drones: we now know exactly what the house looks like, and there’s absolutely nothing left to the imagination.
If this were a card game, I would say that Hawkins showed her hand way too early—like all of her hand. The entire thing. Just slapped it on the table for anyone and everyone to see.
For example, let’s take a moment to look at the POV of Mark Henderson, the teacher from the high school. As previously mentioned, that one came out of nowhere, right? When you’re going through the many, many POVs in this book, all of them are told in the voices of either someone who has lost a loved one to the Drowning Pool (Jules, Lena, Sean, Patrick, Louise, Josh) or someone who is investigating the case (Sean, Erin). Our only exceptions to this are as follows: Nickie Sage, who is connected to the Drowning Pool because she claims to speak to the dead who lost their lives there; Helen Townsend, whose husband lost his mother to the Drowning Pool and whose father-in-law lost his wife; Nel Abbott’s writings about women who lost their own lives to the Drowning Pool; and Mark Henderson, who…wait, what did Mark Henderson do? How is he a part of this?
One might argue that the inclusion of Mark Henderson’s point of view is part of the mystery and that it, in fact, adds to the suspense, but for me, I felt quite the opposite. If Henderson hadn’t lost a relative to the waters and wasn’t a cop investigating the case, then the only other option is that he was up to something shady related to one of the drowning victims. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I was jumping to conclusions.
But it seemed like the only logical reason to have him in the book at all, and lo and behold, I was a hundred percent right. (For those of you who don’t plan on reading it, while he didn’t murder Nel or Katie, he was having an affair with fifteen-year-old Katie, who subsequently killed herself in the Drowning Pool when she believed their affair would be exposed and Henderson would essentially be crucified as a result.)
So, aside from Henderson’s shady interactions, I felt the rest of the mystery was pretty easy to piece together as the story went on, as well, which can either be a good thing or a bad thing. I know some readers love solving the mystery along with the characters and love to be the one saying, “It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick, you dummy!” while the characters languish in confusion for 85% of the book. But for other readers, figuring it out too far ahead of time can make the rest of the book too boring, as we hate being the ones yelling, “It was Colonel Mustard in the–”…well, you get the point. And while I didn’t necessarily predict the confession from the person who ended up confessing (again, spoiler alert, Patrick Townsend), I knew right away that Nel’s death was not a suicide and once it became obvious that she was involved with Sean Townsend, I figured it had something to do with that affair. And to be honest, it became pretty obvious that she was involved with Sean Townsend in what I think was only the second chapter from Lena Abbott’s point of view when she points out that it’s strange to have to call him “Detective Townsend” rather than Sean, tipping us off right away to the fact that the two have at least some level of relationship outside of this investigation.
All that being said, by no means did I dislike everything about this book, and I thought there were some things Paula Hawkins did very, very well. She definitely did weave a very tangled web with her mysteries, creating several layers of scandal rather than one straightforward mystery, which I commend her for. Some of the characters were very likable and relatable. Personally, I thought Nickie Sage was the best character in the whole book, and I loved that she was so unique and claimed to speak to the victims from beyond the grave, rather than having a more “traditional” or straightforward perspective. And of all the POVs, I really think Lena Abbott’s was the most well-written. It isn’t always easy to write from the perspective of a teenager (especially one going through what Lena is going through), but as far as I’m concerned, Hawkins nailed it. Lena read as a perfectly authentic confused, moody, overwhelmed teenage girl.
Although the ending of the book felt like it took forever because after the events came to a conclusion, we had to wrap up the story from ten points of view, I actually liked that some things were left unexplained. I liked that we never find out what happened to Mark Henderson, and we only get some hints from Lena, without her explicitly telling us anything. I liked that although Patrick Townsend confesses, we are still sort of up in the air about whether or not he was really the person who murdered Nel, especially since some of the details of his confession don’t match up with the evidence. I also like that we don’t know where Sean runs off to when he takes off, presumably in an attempt to flee his own demons. The subtle ambiguity woven into the ending of the novel was another one of the book’s strong points.
Finally, I think the best and most impactful scene in the entire book is near the end when Jules explains to Lena that when she was a teenager, she was sexually assaulted by Nel’s boyfriend, Robbie. Lena asks Jules why she never spoke up about it, why she didn’t press charges, and at this point Nel speaks the most honest, heartfelt words in the entire novel:
“I don’t think I saw it for what it was. What it really was. I thought rape was something a bad man did to you, a man who jumped out at you in an alleyway in the dead of night, a man who held a knife to your throat. I didn’t think boys did it. Not schoolboys like Robbie, not good-looking boys, the ones who go out with the prettiest girl in town. I didn’t think they did it to you in your own living room, I didn’t think they talked to you about it afterwards and asked you if you’d had a good time. I just thought I must have done something wrong, that I hadn’t made it clear enough that I didn’t want it.”
This confession was like a punch in the chest, and I think is so relatable for so many people today who may have had similar experiences. This felt more genuine than anything in the entire book—even the deaths, even the grieving—and I couldn’t help but think that if only the rest of the novel had delivered this level of insight and poignancy, I would have loved it so much more.
Have any of you read Into the Water? What did you think of it? Did you like having eleven points of view to follow, or was it just too much? Let me know what you think in the comments! You know I’d love to talk. <3