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Book Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

About The Girl on the Train

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
Compulsively readable, The Girl on the Train is an emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller and an electrifying debut.

The Girl on the Train is Paula Hawkins' first thriller, a New York Times #1 Bestseller, and winner of numerous awards. It is not to be confused with Girl on a Train by Alison Waines, which has also been climbing the charts as a result of Hawkins' success. It is currently being adapted into a film starring Emily Blunt and scheduled for release in October 2016.  

 

What Did I Think of It?

Let's just get this out of the way now - like millions of other people, I read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and found myself hooked. It was one of those rare, delightful books that demanded a nice long session of binge reading, complete with a full kettle of tea and several blankets. I'm pretty sure I was "sick" the entire weekend I was reading it. Just so you can see what a devoted a fan I was, I've included an excerpt from a completely real, 100% accurate conversation I had with the biggest book of 2012:

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"Keep reading!" It would yell at me, as I walked into a wall while holding my phone in front of my face. "This is the page when you'll really find out what happened! I promise!"
I couldn't believe this was happening. Everything had started off so well. Gone Girl and I, we were the perfect pair. I'd thought it was the book of my dreams. 
"But Gone Girl, you said that on the last page, and the page before that," I wailed. "You're not the book I thought you were.  I can't live like this."
"Just try and put me down. You'll never find another book like me," Gone Girl hissed, flapping its many pages menacingly. "We need each other."
It was right. Gone Girl was always right. I'd never be as happy with another novel as I was with it. 

So when I first saw reviews for Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train, which inevitably included at least one comparison to Gone Girl, I was intrigued. Comparing new releases to established bestsellers undoubtedly helps move books, but every reviewer with access to a Barnes & Noble and a keyboard seemed compelled to note again and again all of the similarities between the two novels. Had they all been possessed by Gillian Flynn? Had Paula Hawkins' publicist threatened to rip their skins off and staple it back on them, inside out, if they didn't include at least one paragraph comparing it to Rear WindowGone Girl, or Law and Order? I figured that I would never know the truth. However, now that I've finished reading it, I understand - any conversation about The Girl on the Train feels incomplete without at least touching on the debt it owes to Gillian Flynn's blockbuster novel. 

I'll spare you all an in-depth comparison. Yes, it's true that The Girl on the Train could have been written after Hawkins took a long look at Gone Girl's page on TV Tropes and thought, "Well, you can't have too much of a good thing, right?" Unreliable narrators, an exploration of modern marriage (and divorce), suburban repression, mass media coverage of murder cases, infidelity, unsympathetic husbands - her Girl has them all. But while there are important similarities in the themes and plots of both novels, Hawkins' novel is worth reading even if, like me, you were convinced that you would never really love another thriller again. 

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The key to The Girl on the Train's value as a novel - and its continuous placement on bestseller lists all over the world - is to forget all the comparisons. So from here on in, promise to stop thinking of it as "cinematic" or "straight out of Gillian Flynn's playbook" or "Hitchcock-ian". Just sit back, make yourself a nice cuppa something, and enjoy it. It has three fantastic, nuanced narrators: Megan, a former wild child who finds herself repressed by her suburban surroundings; Anna, a glossy, gorgeous new mom and former mistress who finds herself haunted by her husband's ex-wife; and Rachel, the titular Girl of The Girl on the Train, a divorced alcoholic who spends her day on the train to London, fantasizing about the people whose lives she glimpses from the window, and filled with regret for her broken marriage. These three women's stories intersect in fascinating, yet surprisingly realistic ways and it is through their distinct, often conflicting, voices that the story really finds room to shine.  

Hawkins, a former journalist, writes in a fairly straightforward style. There are no unnecessary flourishes or deft turns of phrase from an experienced pen, but there is a tightly paced, unpredictable plot that unfolds wonderfully. While I like to think of all writers as puppet-masters, in the last few thrillers I've read I've had the unsettling feeling that one too many of the strings were visible. Sometimes you can just feel the author thinking, "They'll never notice the significance of this bit" and blowing a metaphorical raspberry through the pages. The Girl on the Train is so tightly written, though, that not once did I find myself noticing the rather important details that each narrators' perspective allowed them to omit. Although it is true that Rachel, the narrator we spend the most time with, has a number of alcohol-induced blackout that conveniently allow her to forget entire chunks of the plot as necessary, her chapters still move the story along and introduce a number of key events without feeling like an infodump. 

None of the characters are particularly likable figures, but they do all feel undeniably human. Rachel's relapses into alcoholism, Megan's constant affairs, and Anna's fanatical hatred of her husband's ex were frustrating reads, but did feel like very realistic faults given each character's history. And to give Hawkins credit, she even has Rachel warn us of the inherent discomfort we'll feel while reading about her: "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." And she isn't wrong; her penchant for self-humiliation had me physically closing my book to collect myself before continuing. 

You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned the men of The Girl on the Train at all. Even the summary sort of skates over them. They're all distinctive figures who do their bit to move the plot along and occupy the thoughts of each of the narrators, but they never feel particularly significant. It's the women of the story that draw focus. Even when I was horrified by the thoughts or actions of Megan, Rachel, and Anna, I never stopped wanting to know what would happen to them. But no matter how much time the narrators spent dwelling on the male characters, they never seemed as vivid as their female counterparts. That is, of course, a very subjective opinion. I know plenty of people who were rooting for "Jess and Jason" to make it, or who thought that Tom and Anna seemed like a wonderful couple, but I remain unconvinced by any of the male characters' dubious charms. 

Final Verdict: A-

Who Should Read It?

If you love mysteries or thrillers - filmed or written - this is the book for you. Even if you don't usually find yourself in the thriller aisle very often, this is still worth a read. At 336 tightly written pages, it's a quick read.  

Where Can You Buy It?

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, straight from the publisher, and pretty much everywhere else books are sold. Paula Hawkins also has a list of places to buy the book on her website, as well as interviews and Q&As. This Washington Post breakdown of the casting choices for the upcoming film version is also worth a read, but leave it til after you've finished the book - spoilers abound. 

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