Monthly Book Review: “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

“They are a perfect, golden couple,” Rachel Watson thinks, regarding handsome Jason and his striking wife, Jess. “He is dark-haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blond hair cropped short.” Rachel, the main narrator of Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train, is obsessed with the pair. They represent to her the perfect relationship that she once had, or seemed to, before it imploded spectacularly.

She can’t stop thinking about Jason and Jess, but she doesn’t know them. She sees them through the window of a commuter train, one she takes each morning and evening on her commute to and from London. The couple, whose real names are Megan and Scott, live a few houses away from the one Rachel used to occupy, before her alcoholism poisoned her relationship with her husband, leading to divorce. “They’re a match, they’re a set,” Rachel reflects. “They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.”

On the train one day, Rachel sees Megan on her patio kissing an unknown man. The next day, Megan’s disappearance is announced on the news. Rachel jumps into the case head-first, offering herself to the police as a potential witness, and to Scott as an ally, but given her overt alcoholism and frequent lies about her life, comes to seem to the police and Scott like an unreliable narrator. On the night that Megan went missing, Rachel happened to have been drunk, possibly stalking her ex-husband and his new family. The problem: She can’t remember anything.

The point of view in The Girl on the Train alternates among three characters: luckless, obsessed Rachel; charming, complicated Megan; and Anna, the new love of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom. Alternating points of view is a tricky prospect. It can easily come off as unnecessary or gimmicky, but Hawkins uses the technique masterfully, giving just enough away in each chapter. None of the revelations in the book are tidy, and the picture gets much murkier before the mystery is resolved. Much of the complexity of the novel is due to Rachel, an exceptionally unreliable narrator with a tendency to pass out drunk, forgetting everything that happened the day before.

The writing is excellent, lending itself easily to cinematic style, so I was not surprised when I read last year that the book was on its way to the big screen. The story pays tribute to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and Rear Window in the best possible way. The ending plays out like a movie scene. Although Hawkins has a well-established career as a journalist, this is her first novel. Not surprisingly, it debuted on the New York Times fiction best sellers list at number one. I rank this finely crafted novel right up there with The Lovely Bones, Gone Girl, and The Arsonist.

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