Book Review: “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins, published by Riverhead Books, 2015
At first glance, Rachel is just like the thousands of people who ride the train to and from London daily. Anyone who commutes, as I have done for almost a decade traveling from New Jersey to Manhattan and back every day, will appreciate her experience. But, unlike most commuters, Rachel has an enormous emotional and psychological baggage that slowly unravels in this excellent thriller.
Rachel fantasizes about a couple who lives in one of the houses she passes by. In her imagination, they have a perfect life—a far cry from hers—until she sees in the news that the wife has gone missing. This affects her deeply, the beginning of the twists and turns that will reveal who Rachel is.
It turns out her husband has left her for a more attractive woman. She continues to commute daily even though she’s been fired from her job because she doesn’t want her roommate to know the truth. She lost her job because she drinks too much. Worse, she blacks out during her drinking bouts, leaving her vulnerable, and making her an unreliable narrator.
Rachel is the primary narrator in this book. Her point of view alternates with that of Megan, the woman Rachel likes to watch from a train window, and Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom. In fact, Rachel used to live a few houses away from Megan back when she was married. Now Anna lives in that house with Tom, whom Rachel stalks.
“Rear Window” Meets “Gone Girl” Paula Hawkins has a gift for weaving the intricate connections in the lives of Rachel, Megan, and Anna, and revealing them bit by thrilling bit. She combines with great success the thrill of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and the dark mystery of “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn.
Despite this book’s similarities to those two works, Hawkins’s protagonist is all her own. Rachel is unique and memorable, one of the biggest losers you’ll ever meet in literature. She doesn’t exert any effort in stopping the booze; lies to everyone, including the police; and harasses Tom, Anna, and their baby. Then she intervenes in the investigation of Megan’s disappearance.
And yet Rachel is a sympathetic character. She turned to drinking because she’s barren. Tom cheated on her, dumped her, and then installed his new wife in the home Rachel loved. She’s weak, but she cares about Tom and even Megan. Despite her memory lapses and her bumbling ways, she perseveres in finding out what happened to Megan.
Great Storytelling This novel is written in present tense, a style which most writing teachers will tell you is a no-no, but it suits an unreliable narrator such as Rachel and the narrow POVs of Anna and Megan. The prose isn’t as sharp as “Gone Girl,” but Hawkins is an extraordinary storyteller whose clever plot and impeccable timing and pacing kept me up at night.
If you want a book you won’t be able to put down, I highly recommend “The Girl on the Train.” This is only the third book I found so irresistible that I gladly sacrificed a few hours of sleep to read it. The other two are “Gone Girl” and Dennis Lehane’s “Shutter Island,” both of which I also recommend.
If you like thrillers, you might want to read this review: Tana French’s “Broken Harbor”: Murder and Madness Triggered by Economic Downturn