Everyday on a commuter train, Rachel travels between her home in Ashbury to London. As the train passes through Witney, she can see her old home through the window. Her exhusband still lives in the house, with his current wife, Anna, and their infant daughter. A few houses down, she also spies on the lives of “Jess and Jason,” the perfect couple. Depressed, alcoholic, self-loathing, she daydreams about the life she used to live with Tom and fantasizes about the life “Jess and Jason” live. But one morning in July, recovering from an alcoholic blackout, Rachel wakes up with a sense of doom hovering over her. When she learns that “Jess” had vanished during the night, she believes she knows more about the disappearance than she can remember.
Usually in this blog, I write about writers who had lived long ago, about novels that have been around for decades, but The Girl on the Train is a new novel, published in 2015, and its writer, Paula Hawkins, is only beginning her career. I first heard of this book last December, on a list of the best books of 2015, and a couple days later, I saw it on another list of 2015’s best. I knew then that I was going to read it. When I saw that the movie was due for release in the fall, I decided to read it now, before the movie hype kicks in. I like approaching a book knowing little about it. I like approaching it with a fresh mind.
There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks. Light-blue cloth–a shirt, perhaps–jumbled up with something dirty white. It’s probably rubbish, part of a load dumped into the scrubby little wood up the bank. It could have been left behind by the engineers who work this part of the track, they’re here often enough. Or it could be something else. My mother used to tell me that I had an overactive imagination; Tom said that, too. I can’t help it, I catch sight of these discarded scraps, a dirty T-shirt or a lonesome shoe, and all I can think of is the other shoe and the feet that fitted into them.
As I began reading The Girl on the Train, I found myself wanting to compare it to Gone Girl. Both novels have the same narration structure–multiple viewpoints, present tense, unreliable narrators–and both deal with missing women. But as I read further, I realized that The Girl on the Train is the superior novel. By mid-book, there was no comparison. Gone Girl had one big twist, introduced halfway through the novel, but once it reached that twist, the novel lost steam. I finished reading it, but after that twist, the story itself failed to motivate me.
The Girl on the Train, though having several twists and turns, have no such gimmick. It never lost steam. It kept me turning the pages. When I had to set it down due to other commitments, I felt myself anxious to get back to it. I needed to know what was happening in Rachel’s pursuit for the truth. I think it takes a special talent to keep the level of suspense–that is the sense of pending danger–rising in a novel, and I think it takes a different talent to keep the mystery unsolved to the climax. Hawkins managed to achieve both. Instead of presenting us with one gimmicky twist, as in Gone Girl, she imbued the novel with a series of minor twists and revelations that steers us to the final realization.
The characters, especially the female characters, are instantly recognizable and relatable. They are relatable as imperfect people. Alcoholism, infidelity, abuse play a big role in motivation and behaviors. Any novel worth its salt is about more than plot, about more than the interplay between its characters. This is what your high school literature teacher meant when she asked, “What is the theme?” Since most novels deal with several themes, I always believe that question should be in the plural. But if I were to limit the theme to just one answer, that answer would be human imperfection. In her exploration of alcoholism, infidelity, domestic violence, lies, secrets, and other deceits, Hawkins elevates The Girl on the Train above the quality I would expect from genre literature. Perhaps its too much to call this a literary novel, but it is clearly a novel for our time and of our social problems.
I had a panic attack on my way home last night. There was a motorbike, revving its engine over and over and over, and a red car driving slowly past, like a kerb crawler, and two women with buggies blocking my path. I couldn’t get past them on the pavement, so I went into the street and was almost hit by a car coming in the opposite direction, which I hadn’t even seen. The driver leaned on the horn and yelled something at me. I couldn’t catch my breath, my heart was racing, I felt that lurch in my stomach, like when you’ve taken a pill and you’re just about to come up, that punch of adrenaline that makes you feel sick and excited and scared all at once.
As you can no doubt tell, I recommend you read The Girl on the Train. The movie–directed by Tate Taylor and starring Emily Blunt as Rachel–is set for release in October. As always, I recommend the sound practice of reading the novel before seeing the movie. I think this is particular true of suspense thrillers, where I prefer to experience the twists and turns in words rather than images. But in my last contrast with Gone Girl, whereas I feel zero motivation to see Gone Girl, I’m excited to see The Girl on the Train. This book has inherent drama that I believe will translate well into film. I’m also looking forward to reading more novels from Paula Hawkins.