Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: January 13th 2015
Take the unreliable narrator format from Gone Girl and multiply it times three and you’ve got Paula Hawkins’ debut novel The Girl on the Train. Three women—Anna, Rachel, and Megan—all pass through the same time and space but each from a very different perspective, varying from sad to what appears to be flat out crazy. For Rachel, being unable to conceive leads to solace found only in alcohol. When her husband cheats on her with Anna she moves out and after five years of steady decline has lost her job but not her obsession over her former marriage. She spends her days on the commuter train, drinking as it goes by her old house and fantasizing about Megan who lives near her old house. She is also stalking her ex and his new wife and their young daughter—calling their home at night and trying to get him to talk to her about what went wrong.
Hawkins wastes no time in subtlety but launches Rachel directly from her cans of gin and tonic on the train into the midst of the police investigation for Megan, who has gone missing. Her alcoholism is so out of control that she cannot account for wide swathes of time, including the night when Megan disappeared. Her behavior towards her ex and his wife makes her even more suspicious and for Anna it becomes the perfect time to get Rachel out of their lives once and for all.
The Girl on the Train piles on the drama trauma in a way that will impact readers one of two ways. Either you’ll be drawn in and tear through the book, eating up every detail, or you’re going to find it over-the-top. I fell into the latter group. For me, using Rachel’s alcoholism as the tool to smash her credibility feels a bit like cheating. Her bruises, cuts and lack of any memories when she’s drinking is too easy and sets her up too well. Her behavior is largely shown when she’s drunk and so, removes any psychological element from her actions. Of course, she’s unreliable—she’s drunk! This is where the comparisons to Gone Girl go off the track—everyone in that novel was, on the surface, “normal” which made their actions and the resulting mystery and tension that much more shocking. That is not the case here. As the central protagonist Rachel sets the tone for the novel and as her actions become more unstrung and pathetic attention for the rest of the story wanders.
At the same time, The Girl on the Train will gain a following because it does utilize the mental gymnastics performed so well by Gillian Flynn. Hawkins gets points for sticking her landing with a reveal at the end that is surprising but while it goes some way towards alleviating my feelings about her representation of Rachel it isn’t enough to move this novel from good to great.