If you are looking for a well written, fast moving psychological thriller in the vein of Gillian Flynn’s brilliant Gone Girl you will be entertained and satisfied with The Girl on the Train. Like Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train uses an unreliable narrator structure to keep the reader off balance, revealing information bits at a time so that your understanding of the story keeps changing. It also features characters that are largely unlikable, yet strangely compelling, and keeps you turning the pages even as the story gets almost unbearably bleak. But the old adage goes “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” And in the case of The Girl on the Train that adage is proven true.
Evey day Rachel Watson rides the train in to London from her flat in the suburbs. And every day the train stops in a small hamlet affording Rachel a view of a house where she often sees a beautiful couple, Megan and Scott Hipwell. She fantasizes about their happy life as an escape from her own misery. Rachel was divorced two years before and now is a full blown barely functioning alcoholic. One day Megan Hipwell disappears, and Rachel discovers that she was nearby when it happened but has only a sketchy memory of that drunken night. Desperate to learn the truth, as well as give her own sad life meaning, Rachel inserts herself in to the investigation.
It’s a cliché, and a cliché I have used many times before, but there really isn’t much more to be said without ruining the twists and turns. The Girl on the Train is a compelling story, written beautifully by first time author Paula Hawkins. It’s also an incredibly dark story and there are times that darkness is absolutely oppressive. Nothing is as it seems and the story alternates between three different narrators which acts to keep the reader constantly off balance as one character surmises something only to have the next chapter irrevocably refute what we know. The mystery aspect of the book is very well done. It kept me guessing all the way until the reveal as the pieces started to fall in to place. I did finally figure it out and largely had it all put together just before the reveal but this didn’t lessen my enjoyment. There is one issue I have with the ending, a piece of evidence that shouldn’t exist, but other than that it’s logical and well put together.
Other than the mystery the primary focus of the book is the notion of being trapped and stuck in a never-ending cycle of self-destruction. Rachel rides a train every day to London and back home while Megan watches the same train and fantasizes about jumping on and leaving her life behind. But the train is running in a loop, it doesn’t really go anywhere, just like the characters – specifically the women – in the story. It also is a powerful portrait of a woman that is absolutely shattered at a fundamental level and relies on alcohol just to function through her day. The only way she can face her life is to numb herself to the past, anything so she doesn’t have to face who she is and what she has become. There is tragedy in Rachel’s past, but she never makes that the excuse for her drinking. She’s a frustrating character but also a sympathetic one. In a book full of damaged people at war with themselves she is the one desperate to overcome her addictions and get her life back. Even as you are screaming at her to not get drunk and make another poor decision, you can’t help but keep rooting for her to overcome the drink.
The Girl on the Train is good but probably not for everyone. If it was written by a man it would likely be labeled misogynistic in its portrayal of the female characters. I’m not sure it entirely escapes that label even with a woman at the helm, but they are nuanced characters and don’t clearly fit in to an archetypal set. The realistic portrayal of alcoholism will also be troubling for anyone that has had more than one morning where upon waking they don’t know what they did, but they know it was bad and dread the act of piecing together the events of the night before. Your own dance with that particular devil will likely influence just how sympathetic and patient you are toward Rachel.
NOTE: The movie is coming out Fall 2016, starring Emily Blunt as Rachel, and Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), Luke Evans, Laura Prepon, and Justin Theroux. The story is being moved to the US (guessing Chicago) from London since Americans hate those funny foreigner accents. Personally I could listen to Emily Blunt and Rebecca Ferguson read wheat futures to me for hours on end but that’s just me.