THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2015)
Riverhead Books, 366 pages, ISBN: 978-1594633669
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There are funny drunks, nasty drunks, and pathetic drunks. File Rachel in the third group. Five years earlier she almost had it all–a job she liked, a nice home, and Tom, a doting husband. The only thing missing was a baby, but when that didn't happen, Rachel started hitting the bottle. Move the clock forward and Tom is still in the dream home, but with his new wife, Anna, and their infant daughter. Rachel has sunk deep into alcohol dependency and it's not a pretty picture. She leaves bitter messages on Tom's phone, stalks him and Anna, gulps gin and tonics as the train clacks past her former home, and wallows in bitterness–when she's not either blacked out or imagining things. Piece by piece her former life falls away: her friends, her job, her looks, her self-confidence, and her dignity. She's become such a loser that about all she has left is fantasy. A trackside pile of crumbled clothing sends her into paroxysms of grief as she imagines a dead child and can't shake the image. Her only solace is "Jess" and "Jason," and they don't exist. They are the invented personae of a couple she observes from the train window–Jess and Jason being a classic transference of the love and suburban idyll she has lost.
Paula Hawkins' debut novel, The Girl on the Train, has drawn comparisons to Gone Girl, though the two are alike mostly in their unreliable narrator structure. Girl on the Train is a murder-mystery whodunit whose drama is sustained by probing Rachel's fragile psyche. Jess and Jason turn out to be Megan and Scott–neighbors of Tom and Anna–and all is not well in Fantasy Land, as Rachel learns when she sees Megan planting a passionate kiss on another man. (And as readers discover in intercalary chapters from Megan's point of view. Later we get a few from Anna as well.) Even worse, Megan disappears on a night in which Rachel has been stalking her ex, gets blind drunk, and has no memory of how she got a nasty bump on her head or blood all over her hands. What's blocking her memory: guilt, terror, or just too much booze? For all she can recall, she might not have even been in the vicinity the night Megan disappeared, but she doesn't help matters by interjecting herself into the effort to unravel the mystery. Drunks, ethics, and police investigations simply aren't good matches.
Hawkins does a superb job in crafting Rachel's character. She is, by turns, pitiful, sympathetic, and skin crawling creepy. As readers, we don't trust her any more than the police looking for Megan. Hawkins has fashioned a good old-fashioned page-turner, though I'd stop short of heaping hyperbolic praise on this book. Though Rachel and Megan are vivid characters, the same cannot be said for several of the secondary characters. Both Scott and Kemal (Megan's therapist) are more paste-up than fleshed out, and much of the book's dramatic tension is adapted from Hitchcock's Rear Window. Hawkins' writing style is also reminiscent of Hitchcock in that the cinematic tone tries to obscure implausible twists one would question if not so caught up in the story. She didn't fool me; I ferreted out the villain long before the culprit was revealed–largely, in my view, because it was too easy to identify the red herrings. I enjoyed this book quite a lot, but mainly because it was a diverting, non-taxing read. I'm not willing to rank it with Gone Girl (or Rear Window). T'is a gripping story, but one hopes Hawkins will take a few more chances in her next book and give us more characters with Rachel's depth. Rob Weir
PS: This book has been optioned, but Hawkins' story should not be confused with either a 2013 film of the same name directed by Larry Brand, or the 2013 French film La fille du RER which is often translated as The Girl on the Train. To complicate matters more, there's also a 1982 adaptation of an Agatha Christie story titled The Girl in the Train! DreamWorks will create the film version of Hawkins' book, but it's not yet in production.