Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (January 13, 2015)
January’s been a restless reading time, exacerbated by the winter blues. I haven’t been able to settle down to anything, bouncing from book to book, nothing holding my interest longer than a few dozen pages at best. It’s been an agony for someone as reliant on the love of reading as I am. I’m used to falling back on reading as a means of escaping life’s troubles. When I don’t have that outlet I tend to get frustrated and flustered. It’s damned awful.
My savior came in the form of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, a well-paced and sparing novel I flew through in two days. Part of the reason I consumed it so voraciously was the mystery element, of course. The deeper you get into the book the harder it is to restrain yourself from paging forward to see how it ends – not that I’m that sort of reader, but if I were I’d have had a very difficult time holding myself back. The other reason is the deceptively simple style and the stylistic choice of giving alternating points of view of the main characters, one per chapter. I love getting inside the heads of more than the main character, especially when the author is skilled enough to give the reader just enough intrigue, not enough to figure out the answer too soon.
Hawkins’ novel is being compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, for obvious, yet not quite stylistically true reasons. Both books feature beautiful blonde wives who go missing (which is a bit cliché), criminal suspicion falling on the husband – not unusual in real world missing person cases. Also, both involve affairs likely to have played a role in foul play, as well as a sub-theme of pregnancy: one partner who wants a baby, while the other has more complicated feelings.
In The Girl on the Train the main character is Rachel Watson, ex-wife of Tom Watson, an unsympathetic character who left Rachel for a young, beautiful blonde (again …) named Anna. Rachel, already battling the alcoholism partly at fault for ending her marriage, falls apart. She harasses Tom and Anna even two years following her divorce, calling their home in the middle of the night, showing up on their doorstep drunk and disheveled. Though sympathy for Rachel is easier than Tom, I found myself becoming irritated with her inability to clean herself up and move on. While I understood her pain, she made herself pathetic holding onto Tom’s leg, drinking herself sloppy. We all know heartbreak but for God’s sake pick yourself up and move on!
The woman who goes missing was not Anna Watson but rather another beautiful, petite blonde who lived a few doors down from the Watsons, Megan Hipwel. What gives this novel such a unique edge is the method by which Rachel comes to know of Megan, before her disappearance. Taking the commuter train from the suburbs into London twice a day, Rachel passes her former home. Spying on her husband’s new life, she comes to notice the house a few doors down and the blonde woman and her ideal, handsome husband who often sit and watch the trains from their terrace. She sees them so often she gives them names, imagining their lives. They become her idea of the perfect couple.
Coincidentally, from the train Rachel also witnesses an event in the back garden of the ideal couple, something that upsets her more than it really should. And, when Megan goes missing, Rachel believes she may hold a key piece of evidence. However, being a drunken, unreliable witness, the police don’t take her seriously. She’s already admitted she was on the street both her husband and Megan live on the night Megan disappeared, and has denied seeing another soul. They know she’s obsessive and they know she’s a drunk. She blacked out that same night. Rachel can hardly trust herself, either, much less unravel fact from fiction.
Unlike Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train uses a much more believable method of obscuring the truth than the not quite believable machinations of a brilliant and psychotic main female character. The book relies on Rachel’s blackouts, much more realistic as a plot device. Hawkins slyly presents us with good and murderous characters, keeping the plot taut via Rachel’s lost night, which seems to be key. Even that she twists, lulling the reader into believing one truth, then switching things up.
Rachel is a good person who’s been terribly hurt, and her impulses aren’t easily controlled. No one quite trusts her, so when she ultimately remembers the truth, will the police listen to her? And is it even the truth?
The Girl on the Train is a sometimes flawed but compelling read that unwinds itself slowly. It’s possible to guess the ending, and yes, I did, but the tension makes it no less an exciting read. Is it worth the claim it’s the next Gone Girl? In some ways I’d argue it surpasses it. You can believe it and relate to the often frustrating characters. It’s something that could happen, not a plot so far-fetched it comes off annoying. There is such a thing as too many twists. The Girl on the Train has just enough. Recommended, especially if you find yourself in a reading drought and need an unputdownable book to get you back on track..