The Girl on the Train
Notwithstanding all of the deceit, deception and general out-and-out fraud one will find in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, each and every word in this engrossing debut thriller by Paula Hawkins has the ring of truth to it. Those of us who have used public transit will identify and, to some degree, sympathize with the book’s very troubled protagonist. We either are her or know someone very much like her. So be warned at the outset: that chill you will feel running up your spine after reading the first few pages is well-earned.
The “girl” of the title is a woman named Rachel, who (to describe her in the current vernacular) is a hot mess. An alcoholic who is recently divorced and all but homeless save for the grace of a friend with (almost) endless patience, Rachel needs regular grooming, a detox program and an attitude adjustment, not necessarily in that order. There seems to be a literary trend that presents novels narrated by unreliable characters; if that perception is correct, then Rachel is at the front of the pack in terms of unreliability. Her alcohol abuse has progressed to the extent that she is prone to physical and mental blackouts; her most productive hours are in the morning and evening, traveling by commuter train to and from a job that she no longer has in London. She spends the intervals in between drinking, wandering about, and lying to her poor roommate, who gives her a place to stay and has more compassion than sense.
"You might want to set aside enough time to read THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN twice --- once to enjoy, and another to appreciate how well Hawkins has crafted the twists, turns and sleights of hand that make this Hitchcockian thriller such a pleasure to read and wonder at."
At all times, however, Rachel is obsessed with her former home and its current occupants: Tom, her ex-husband; Anna, his new wife, with whom he carried on an affair while Rachel and Tom were married; and their new baby, the one Anna could give him after Rachel could not. Yes, Rachel is obsessed and jealous; that, plus alcohol, means that she has harassed Tom and Anna on more than one occasion, resulting in calls to the police.
Rachel’s obsessions don’t end there. On those commuter train trips back and forth to London, she has regularly (if momentarily) observed a couple with an apparently idyllic life, the one she wishes she still had with Tom. She has named the couple “Jess and Jason,” and imagines their life in vivid detail, watching them each day from afar as the train passes their backyard. That they are down-the-road neighbors of Tom and Anna doesn’t help matters, either.
One day, though, Rachel notices a snake in paradise as the train passes by Jess and Jason’s yard: Jess is kissing another man. When Jess --- whose real name is Megan --- is reported missing a short time later, Rachel believes that she knows why. But since Rachel is already known to the police as being somewhat unreliable, her report (when she gets around to telling it) is greeted with doubt at best and suspicion at worst, particularly when it turns out that she was in the vicinity of Megan/Jess’ home on the night that Megan disappeared. Why was she in the neighborhood? Any excuse will do, given that Anna and Tom live just a few doors down from the now-missing Megan. The report puts Rachel on someone else’s radar. As if she wasn’t a great enough danger to herself, she has attracted the malevolent attention of someone else.
Do you have all of that? Just to keep things extremely interesting, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is told from three different points of view --- Anna’s, Megan’s and, of course, Rachel’s --- while bouncing back and forth in time. It quickly becomes evident at various points in the narrative that all three women are mistaken or lying about what is happening at any given moment. They aren’t the only ones, though. It also becomes clear that maybe --- just maybe --- Rachel isn’t entirely at fault for her current situation. Still, she may be guilty of murder. Or maybe not. You are going to have to read the book to find out.
You might want to set aside enough time to read THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN twice --- once to enjoy, and another to appreciate how well Hawkins has crafted the twists, turns and sleights of hand that make this Hitchcockian thriller such a pleasure to read and wonder at.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 14, 2015