Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Rachel Watson takes the train into London every day, sits in the same compartment, stops at the same train signals, and observes the same trackside houses at these daily standstills.  One in particular holds her attention because it holds what Rachel imagines to be the perfect couple.  For a year she sees them through her compartment window several times a week.  She watches them out on their back terrace living life as though unnoticed, drinking coffee or wine, talking or holding hands.  Rachel constructs a narrative for them by piecing together the style of clothing she sees them wearing, the body language she observes, and most importantly, the life and marriage she feels she used to have.  She projects on her almost fictitious couple the idealized, sunshiny life she has longed for since her divorce.  One day Rachel observes something at her idyllic couple's house that jars her and then intertwines her in a thrilling mystery when the wife goes missing the very next day.

The idea of feeling connected to people you've never met simply because you have a rear window glimpse into their lives is a story seed that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud.  The main narrator Rachel is more than just a passive onlooker or busybody, however.  This character's alcoholic tendencies are worthy of Stephen King's praise, and together with her persistent love for her ex-husband, Rachel dumps a lot of her own baggage into this unsolved case.  To hide her drinking problem and its consequences, Rachel has become used to telling lies, but the missing woman, who is a secondary narrator, has many secrets and lies of her own.

Without spoiling anything, I want to comment on the feminism of The Girl on the Train.  The message on traditional gender roles is subtle at first but eventually comes forward as an important final note.  Throughout the novel, Hawkins' female characters all see their worth through the eyes of men.  As the story comes to a close, though, they all seem to find some level of personal strength to do what they know they have to do.  In confronting their individual fears of rejection in some form, they take one firm step towards emancipating themselves from the destructively limiting gender roles which they had previously fully accepted. (Come back to this after reading it, and hopefully it will make sense.)

The Girl on the Train is for the Gone Girl fanatic and adversary alike.  As someone who only saw the film adaptation of Gone Girl without reading the book, I have placed myself squarely in the second- and unpopular- camp of people disappointed with Gone Girl.  The movie version of Gillian Flynn's thriller had an interesting plot set-up but it was littered with inhuman, unrealistic characters that I found confusing and frustrating.  The Girl on the Train deals with similar themes of trust and envy within marriages but does so through believable motives maintained by flawed and fallible characters.  Both thrillers tell stories of wildly imperfect people but Hawkins manages to keep her female characters relatably, sympatheticly human.

In short, The Girl on the Train is absolutely craveable.  From the very first page, the pacing of the thriller is impeccably timed.  Hawkins feeds the reader a juicy new detail at exactly the right time and just when that bit has started to digest, the next exciting little piece of information is presented.  Be prepared to forego all responsibilities until this book is finished, and then be prepared to scour bookshelves for something similar to fill the new void.