Paula Hawkins has caused some buzz so far this year with her thriller/mystery The Girl on the Train, which is being touted as the British Gone Girl. The comparisons to Gone Girl are apt, mostly because of the use of three narrators (though GG only had two), all of whom present as unreliable witnesses to the story, which is always an interesting construction. The reader only gets the male perspective through the female lens, however, which is where this book differs from Gone Girl, and carves out its own path. But yes, a girl does get “gone” in this story as well, and there is some suspense for the reader to shiver about.
The main female character is Rachel, a young women who will make readers’ lives seem charmed in comparison—in fact, her antics are cringe-worthy until she finally shows some strength. She is alone and losing it, and describes herself thus: “I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I’m off-putting in some way. It’s not just that I’ve put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me, can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.”
She is divorced, lives with a roommate who feels sorry for her, drinks too much, sort of stalks her ex-husband Tom and his new wife, and lost her job several months prior, though she is too embarrassed to tell anyone. So she does what any normal person would do: gets up, gets dressed and pretends she is still part of the bustle, hitting the train, riding from one outlying suburb of London to the one where she used to work, all while drinking gin and tonics. She passes the time looking at row houses, one of which she fixates on to the point of peering in at a couple who live in a home very near her old home with ex-husband Tom. To pass the time and help light a dim candle in her pathetic existence, she invents a fantasy backstory for them, though the closest she ever gets to them is within eyeshot from the train—at first, anyway. She names the golden couple Jess and Jason. They are good looking and look happy on the surface, but views from the train do not reveal the true story.
Jess is actually Megan, one of the female narrators. She is a young woman without a family, and one who has a questionable past. She is married to Scott, who seems to be the quintessential nice guy who adores Megan and tries to be her one-person family, but Megan is clearly restless and conflicted. One day Rachel sees Megan kissing a man other than her husband, and it angers her, because how dare this woman ruin the fantasy of the perfect Jess and Jason?! Then the news hits that Megan is missing. This is the turning point at which Rachel decides she needs to interject herself into this couple’s lives. By deciding to expose Megan’s infidelity, she develops a newfound purpose—a way of being a useful member of society again. She basks in the self-importance people have these days when sensational missing-person cases are in the news, and thinks she will be an integral witness who will help solve the mystery. It turns out that the police don’t take kindly to drunk witnesses who stalk their exes and have holes in their stories due to alcohol-induced blackouts. Rachel’s memory issues are investigated cleverly in the novel, painting the picture that sometimes we can re-write our own memories, or sometimes someone with an agenda can do it for us.
Anna is the other narrator. She hates Rachel, who wins the prize as the worst ex-wife: the constant calls and other incidents freak Anna out. To add fuel to the fire, Anna lives with Tom in the same house he shared with Rachel because they can’t afford to move. Rachel hates Anna right back, which includes fanaticizing about her demise: “She must be very secure in herself, I suppose, in them, for it not to bother her, to walk where another woman has walked before. She obviously doesn’t think of me as a threat. I think about Ted Hughes, moving Assia Wevill into the home he’d shared with Plath, of her wearing Sylvia’s clothes, brushing her hair with the same brush. I want to ring Anna up and remind her that Assia ended up with her head in the oven, just like Sylvia did.”
Anna was the affair Tom had when Rachel had started to drink, and he moved from one to the other. He and Anna have a child. Anna, while a good mother, is a selfish woman who sought to snare a husband and she didn’t care whose she took. Though Rachel and Anna hate one another, the plot details make it necessary for them to eventually form a hesitant allegiance.
The male characters—including Tom, Scott and Megan’s therapist—are all mysteries that unravel within the women’s psyches, interactions, and observations. Because the reader has been led to question the female narrators as they go back and forth between perspectives, we don’t know which of these men to trust either. Which one of them, if any, is responsible for Megan’s disappearance? Which one is grieving, and which one is plotting? By the end, the secrets are revealed, and though this book does not have the most artfully “gotcha” suspense construction (likely, suspicions are lingering early on), there is no denying it is hard to put down.
The details that set this book apart from other physiological thrillers are the women: Rachel, the forgetful and pathetic drunk divorcee; Megan, the young, restless, beautiful serial cheater with a terrible secret; and Anna, the manipulative gold digger. Each character does not end up the same way we initially find them. Perhaps it’s because they don’t know themselves as well as they’d like to think, and present themselves falsely to us from the start, or perhaps they just evolve, as people tend to do when faced with challenges. The perspective is thought-provoking, leaving readers contemplating such things as how well we may know ourselves, and the degree to which memory and imagination can become confused in us all.