Girl on the Train Overhyped, but a Good Read

Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books, 366 pages, ISBN: 978-1594633669
* * *

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.


Boston Should Steer Clear of Olympics folly

Athens: This is what the Olympics look like when they end.
In architecture, a “folly” is a structure whose main purpose is to assuage the ego of the person who built it. They are physical representations of metaphorical castles in the air. The egoistic castles, temples, and faux ruins of yesteryear have given way to a new folly: the Olympics. Unless Massachusetts residents put a stop to the madness, Boston will be the next city to lose its shirt on the Olympics.

Boston is slated to host the 2024 summer games, though skeptics hope to waylay those plans. Let’s hope they do. Boosters insist the game will cost just $4.7 billion and that revenues will recoup them. Both projections are either blind optimism or a filthy lie. The 2000 Sydney Olympics cost $6.6 billion, Athens shelled out $15 billion in 2004, Beijing $44 billion in 2008, and London $10.4 billion in 2012, despite having the most games-ready existing structures since Los Angeles in 1984. It hasn’t escaped notice in Massachusetts that even if the optimistic estimates are remotely correct—and $13.7 billion is more realistic—even a thrifty Olympics is double the commonwealth’s current budget deficit.

Boosters insist that holding the Olympics will make Boston a global tourism destination. Huh? It already is. Of the top ten most-visited North American destinations Boston ranks number eight and it’s the smallest city on the list. Of the top ten, just three—Los Angeles, Montreal, and Vancouver—have ever hosted an Olympics. Each year over 19 million tourists visit Boston, of whom nearly 5 million are foreign travelers. If you’re flying from Europe, there are basically five airports at which you’ll land: New York, Boston, Atlanta, Montreal, or Philadelphia. Nobody can compete with New York, but Boston doesn’t need the Olympics to boost its profile. Young people come to investigate its educational opportunities, families for a brush with its rich Colonial history, and foodies for culinary delights. Very few visit a city once the games finish and point to a venue to exclaim, “There’s where the Olympic rowing events took place.”  

The Olympics are like world’s fairs—a relic from another age. Both were noble ideals and, at one time, truly showcased cities seeking to boost their global profiles. That was before the jet age made it possible to spend a long weekend in London or Paris, if one has the inclination and the cash. But mainly they are relics of the pre-globalism age—back before global capitalism homogenized cities. Tourists used to go to Boston to shop at Filene’s or Jordan Marsh, but now every city’s shopping precincts are pretty much the same. I was in Beijing recently and the only thing unique about its shopping precincts or its glass-and-steel inner core is that Asian faces are poking about the same stores you can find in any city: Prado, Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Hermes for the upper crust; McDonald’s, Walmart, Apple, and Old Navy for the rest. (Homogenization, by the way, is why Boston’s Newbury Street is struggling—the wealthy don’t have to venture into the city; they can order the same Chinese-made goods online!)

Above all, the Olympics leave behind little of value. There are few things sadder than a Olympics venue once the two-week games are gone. (At least world’s fairs have the sense to build most venues of plaster and lath.) I have walked among the detritus of several past Olympics. I watched Montreal’s dreams come down piece by piece until only the Olympic Stadium remained­—an antiseptically awful venue not actually completed until 1987 (at an additional $1.6 billion cost) and was abandoned by both the Canadian Football League and Major League Baseball. I strolled what was supposed to be a vibrant new neighborhood near venues in Barcelona, but isn’t. I took one of the longest urban train rides of my life to the middle-of-nowhere Newington section of Sydney (2000) to stroll amidst a collection of concrete ghosts, and have witnessed crumbling graffiti-filled sites in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). Even London has had issues. The Millennium Dome (now the O2 Arena) is the site of massive concerts, though most take the Tube to the site rather than live in the lonely North Greenwich precincts that abut it. The Olympic Stadium closed in 2013 and is being re-outfitted as a much-too-large soccer stadium. The former Olympic Village is officially “still under development.”

All of these problems persist even if you aren’t troubled that the Olympic amateur ideal has been dead for decades, or that the games are more about commerce than sports. The Olympics remain good spectacle, but they are best viewed on TV. Boston needs to say no to this folly. Let the Olympics be held at a specially purposed permanent site and televise them—that’s where the real money is.
Rob Weir


Read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle before a Film is Made

David Wrobleski
Ecco, 608 pp. ISBN: 978-0061374234
* * * * *

Have you ever loved a pet so much that you imagined that it understood you better than most people? Do you recall your first childhood dog and how you felt safe and affirmed in its presence. If so, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle will be your kind of novel. David Wrobleski’s debut novel first appeared in 2008 and immediately went into reprint. Movie rights were recently optioned to two powerful producers with the resources to bring it to the screen: Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey.  

The first third of this book is truly a boy and his dog story. The boy in question is the titular Edgar Sawtelle, the miracle child born to Gar and Trudy Sawtelle after a series of miscarriages that would have left a woman less determined than Trudy to stop trying. The Sawtelles are dog breeders in northern Wisconsin near the Chequamegon National Forest (which factors into the narrative). Edgar is everything his parents could want—bright, dutiful, kind—with one exception: he cannot speak. Doctors are baffled as he hears just fine, learns quickly, and has no discernible damage to his vocal cords. Nonetheless, Edgar’s is a world is which he communicates by sign language and written notes.

That’s fine by Gar and Trudy, as they’re already accustomed to signing—in their dog training. Sawtelle dogs are special. Forget Charles Darwin and think Gregor Mendel. Thanks to breeding methods developed by Gar’s father, Sawtelle dogs are not purebred show dogs, but something even better: independent animals that intuit human needs, but which also respond to visual commands with unfailing obedience. Nobody can buy a Sawtelle puppy; it takes 18 months of exacting training to create such a dog. Edgar’s first experience with a Sawtelle dog is through his faithful companion, Almondine. If you’ve ever owned a dog, the novel’s few chapters that see through Almondine’s eyes will seem so “right” to you that you may tear up in remembrance of when you first felt that human/canine bond. In Edgar’s case, that bond is exceptionally intense as he communicates as much on Almondine’s level as that of “normal” human interaction. He is, in essence, a bipedal Sawtelle dog.

Wroblewski takes us inside the dog-training barn, the meticulous recordkeeping required to run a breeding program, and the human dynamics of the Sawtelle nuclear family unit.  The nostalgic feel of the book’s first third is interrupted when Gar’s brother, Claude, shows up. The brothers also have a bond, but not necessarily a good one; Claude is the rogue of the Sawtelle human litter. The books middle section plays on fraternal tensions, and the last third takes a more tragic/sinister turn. Parts of it are evocative of Hamlet, but I don’t wish to give anything away.

The novel’s tonal shifts failed to charm some critics, though Wroblewski won several first-novel prizes. It’s a long book that occasionally rambles but, to my eyes, in the way that a noble beast might amble across a field. Several critics also found dramatic turns to rest upon too many contrivances—a critique I do not share. Unforgettable characters more than compensate for whatever literary graces the novel lacks. You will feel as if you know the Sawtelles and Almondine, but an especially deft touch is the manner in which Wroblewski makes secondary characters vivid. Appropriately, each dog also has a discernible and distinct personality.

I adored this book. Again, I won’t elaborate, but there’s a very subtle scene in this book that tugged on my heartstrings in a way nothing has since I saw Old Yeller as a kid. Yes, it’s that kind of book—not one for cynics, literary snobs, or those with a low tolerance for sentimentality. The rest of you can gobble this like a hungry dog in front of a fresh bag of kibble.  Rob Weir