Book Review: 'The Girl on the Train: A Novel' by Paula Hawkins
Review by Susan Grigsby
Just when I thought that I had had enough of mysteries, that I had become bored with the genre, and was thinking about switching to non-fiction or fantasy, I found a work of such brilliance that it reminded me of what I love about mysteries.
I love that heart-racing suspense that makes you look at the clock at three AM and decide that you could read just one more chapter before you turn off the light, and all of the sudden realize that two hours have slipped by and the light is still on. And yet, you still haven't flipped to the back of the book to find out how it all ends, no matter how desperately you want to know.
I love a plot that is structured like Ravel's Bolero, each thread winding and tightening the story as it builds to an inexorable climax. There is a magic in that. And it is a magic that I have sorely missed, settling too often for well developed characters and exotic locales.
I realize it is only January, but The Girl on the Train may well become my favorite mystery of 2015. It will surely be the one against which all of the others will be judged.
Rachel takes the same train everyday on her commute to London. And everyday, the train stops at the signal that she believes is broken. But while sitting on the train, waiting for it to start moving again, she observes a couple having breakfast on their deck in a nearby Victorian row house.
She sees them every morning, and assigns them names, Jess and Jason, as she fantasizes about their life. They have a special meaning for her, not only because they seem so perfect together, but because they live a few doors down from the house she shared with her ex-husband, Tom. Tom left her for the "other woman," Anna, with whom he now shares what used to be Tom and Rachel's house.
Since the divorce, Rachel has continued her slide into alcoholism, complete with additional blackouts and embarrassing, harassing, phone calls made to her ex late at night. Lonely, alienated, she spends her days wandering around London and returning to her friend's flat every evening, ashamed to admit that her alcoholism has cost her her job as well as her marriage.
One morning, on her commute from Ashbury Park to Euston Station, she sees something that disturbs her. Something that is just so wrong that when Jess (who is actually Meghan) turns up missing Rachel goes to the police to report what she saw.
As an alcoholic, the police consider her to be an unreliable witness (as should the reader) so she approaches Jason, whose name is Scott, with what she saw.
On the surface, Rachel does not seem to be an appealing narrator, most drunks are boring to the sober, but throughout her days, we see glimmers of the woman she once was. Knowing that she was once more than what she has become, it is impossible to not secretly be in her corner, in spite of her more outrageous behavior.
Hawkins doesn't restrict the narrative to Rachel, however. She includes the voices of the other two women, Meghan, who goes missing and Anna, who is now married to Tom. None of the women are perfect examples of human beings. Each one is a little twisted by the life she has led, as are most women, and that is what I found so wonderful about them. Hawkins avoids stereotyping her anti-heroines and allows them to be completely human.
The Girl on the Train has been compared to Gone Girl, and there are some similarities, like the structure i.e. the point of view switching between characters and times, as well as the domestic setting. Oh, and DreamWorks has optioned the book for a possible film. But in spite of what they share, they are very different books, telling very different stories with very different endings.
Paula Hawkins was a financial journalist before writing novels. She has written others under a pseudonym, that she discusses in an NPR interview:
That was women's fiction, I suppose. "Chick-lit," it's sometimes known as. So, much more lighthearted, not so much killing. ... I did enjoy writing them, but they kept getting darker and darker.
In The Girl on the Train, she mines that tiny streak of voyeurism that runs through most readers—that desire to know what a stranger is thinking, feeling, doing. I would expect that avid readers of mysteries are also people likely to notice those standing in the windows and gardens of houses that they pass in a train or a bus, and wonder what their lives are like. Here is a chance to ride along on that imagined journey.
By the way, you may want to take a moment to study the font used on the cover. Are those letters seen as a train rushes by or are they letters seen from different, sometimes conflicting, perspectives? Not often does the cover art of a book so perfectly reflect the contents.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.