24 May Book Recommendation: The Girl on the Train
Production for the upcoming film, The Girl on the Train, began back in November of 2015, but it’s hard to imagine the perpetual tension of the story will be as palpable on the big-screen as it was in the script’s source material. Often billed as “the next Gone Girl,” The Girl on the Train is the debut mystery/thriller novel by Paula Hawkins that is a gripping read from nearly start to finish. Hawkins tells her story through the first-person perspective of three different narrators, and passes the point-of-view chapters like a baton from one character to the next in order to best broker the suspense of the story. The three POV characters are all loosely connected to one another based on their relative proximity to the train traveling into London, but their lives become far more intertwined and messy as the story progresses.
The book begins with our titular character, Rachel Watson, also known as the girl on the train. Rachel lives just outside of London and takes the train into the city every morning; gazing out the window and letting her imagination wander on her commute. The reader first encounters Rachel having just scraped against rock-bottom after recently losing her job, husband, and home. She relies heavily on alcohol to cope with her current situation, and drowns her reality in cans of gin-and-tonic and made up stories about the people she sees while riding the train. Two of the people Rachel often fantasizes about are Jess and Jason, her proclaimed “perfect, golden couple” she sees nearly everyday in their backyard. Rachel enviously watches this couple (that she’s named for herself) living what seems to be a perfectly happy life just a few houses away from where she had lived with ex-husband, Tom. Rachel is perceived to be a total basket case by the other characters throughout the story; a drunk and desperate mess who often stalks her ex and his new family.
Rachel’s alcoholism is a constant in the book, and makes her the most unreliable narrator of the three. Her drinking problem started around the same time her marriage began to spiral, and this detail about her becomes an integral part of Rachel’s character as she gets mixed up in the investigation surrounding the disappearance of our second narrator, Megan Hipwell.
Megan, otherwise known as “Jess” in Rachel’s fantasy, is the main character whom we the readers spend the least amount of time with; however, her disappearance is what spearheads the whole story. The entirety of Megan’s storyline occurs in the months before she goes missing and her chapters are paced out through the main narrative until her true fate is revealed towards the end of the novel. Megan can come off a bit pretentious and maybe even a bit entitled at times, but she is mostly a misunderstood character with a rich, yet tragic backstory. Aside from being one half of Rachel’s fantasy couple, Megan is also connected to the rest of the characters thanks to a brief stint as the nanny for Tom and his new wife, Anna.
Anna is the novel’s third narrator and Tom’s former mistress/now wife who began seeing him while he and Rachel were still married. Anna is an incredibly vain, self-centered character who admittedly got quite a bit of enjoyment from sleeping with another woman’s husband. She has a harsh, if not understandable opinion of Rachel, and can certainly share the blame for a lot of the incidents that occur between Rachel and her family. Anna’s one redeeming quality is her unmistakable love for her daughter despite some feelings of annoyance that pop into her head every so often, and she starts to realize all she has in common with Rachel as the story unfolds.
Along with the three female narrators of The Girl on the Train, there are also three male characters that help drive a great deal of the plot. There is Tom Watson, a pathological liar who was married to both Rachel and Anna; Scott Hipwell, the jealous and suspicious husband of Megan who has some nasty, violent tendencies; and Kamal Abdic, Megan’s therapist whom she shares a few romantic moments with and the suspect #1 in her disappearance.
None of the men in this novel particularly endearing individuals, but the perception of each of them differs greatly based on whose point-of-view we look at. Take Scott for example; a despicable human being based on some of his actions throughout the story, but also a tortured, somewhat sympathetic character when you get a clearer glimpse into his world. The same multifaceted personality goes for Tom as well, whose lies are often masked with a level of charm that makes it increasingly difficult to decipher what parts of him are real and which are not. Not a single one of these characters can be trusted; and in all honesty, not a single one of them are all that likeable either
At times, it’s hard not to absolutely loathe the characters in The Girl on the Train, but there are also quite a few moments that humanize their behavior, making them people that the reader can at least empathize with. Being a character driven story with unlikable characters in an interesting dynamic to say the least, and it leads the novel becoming an elaborate game of “find the psychopath” in a batch of deeply flawed individuals. Not having one particular character or point-of-view to latch onto really keeps the story wide open and shrouded in mystery, which is used to great effect by Hawkins in her novel.
The case doesn’t become solvable until roughly ⅔ of the way through the book, and Hawkin’s does a phenomenal job with the pacing by placing each chapter-break in just the right spot to raise the level of drama. The Girl on the Train is a fast-paced novel that leans more on the side of mystery than thriller, but becomes harder and harder to put down all the same.