Book Review: The Girl on the Train: A Novel, Paula Hawkins (2015)

January 16th, 2015 12:05 pm by Kelly Garbato

Losing Control – and Finding it Again

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

Rachel Watson’s life is in shambles. After she was unable to conceive a child with her then-husband, Tom, Rachel’s social drinking quickly spiraled out of control. Eventually, her struggle with alcoholism cost Rachel everything: her marriage, her friends, her home, her job, her dignity – even her memories and sense of self. Rachel doesn’t just get drunk, she gets flat-out wasted, with frequent blackouts and periods of lost time. Forced to move in with an old college acquaintance, taking the 8:04 train from Ashbury to Euston every weekend so that her landlady Cathy won’t know that she was fired from her job, Rachel thinks she’s hit rock bottom, or just about. And then she sees something on her morning commute that she shouldn’t, thrusting her into a whole new realm of awful.

The train to London conveniently carries Rachel past her old house, which Tom now shares with his new wife, Anna, and their baby daughter, Evie. Needless to say, this does little to help Rachel get over the hurt and trauma and move on with her life; in fact, she frequently stalks and harasses “the other woman” (though rarely without the boost of some “liquid courage”). Four doors down lives an attractive and (seemingly) adoring young couple. Nicknamed “Jason and Jess” by Rachel, the two serve as a blank slate onto which she projects all the hopes and dreams she once had for herself and Tom. Her emotional investment in their relationship is such that, when Rachel spots Jess kissing a man who most definitely is not Jason, Rachel feels personally betrayed.

But when Jess (Megan) goes missing – on the same night a blackout-drunk Rachel travels into Witney and returns home covered in blood and bruises – Rachel is thrust into the middle of the investigation. Or rather, she inserts herself there: the hunt for Megan’s killer gives Rachel’s own life a sense of purpose that she hasn’t felt in years. When the police fail to take her seriously (“the police think I’m a rubbernecker”), Rachel takes matters into her own hands, striking up a friendship with Megan’s potentially abusive husband, Scott; seeing her old therapist, Kamal Abdic, who may or may not have had an inappropriate relationship with his patient; and visiting the scene of the “crime” to jog her memory. And as Rachel realizes that she must keep her wits about her – especially if she’s ever to remember what transpired that fateful Saturday night – she makes a conscious effort to get her drinking under control. (In fact, The Girl on the Train often reads the like single most terrifying – and hopefully effective – anti-drinking PSA of all time.)

Rachel’s narrative is interwoven with that of Megan, giving us a glimpse of her life in the year leading up to her disappearance; and Anna, who functions as a counterpoint of sorts to Tom/Rachel. Slowly their experiences converge, leading to a rather chilling denouement.

The Girl on the Train is a moody, atmospheric, and bleak story. From Megan’s disappearance on, it feels vaguely similar in tone and style to the big “woman in peril” suspense story of 2014, Gone Girl – what with its puzzling, he said/she said, who to believe? quality – a comparison that initially seems superficial at best (unfair at worst) but definitely gains strength with its twisty turny ending. I hesitate to say more (spoilers!), but Hawkins has crafted a fantastically compulsive read.

That said, Rachel’s insistence that she could tell which men were “good” and “bad” from her limited interactions with them rubbed me the wrong way. Frequently. Abusers aren’t just knife-wielding strangers who lunge at you in the dead of night, but also (often) people you know – intimately: friends, lovers, husbands, sons. Your neighbor in 6E or the barista at the cafe on the corner who you sometimes flirt with. Your boss; your boss’s boss. She barely knows Scott and Kamal, yet Rachel feels certain that one is the villain; the other, an innocent victim. That she’s mistaken on both counts and ultimately disabused of this notion results in a somewhat satisfactory payoff…but it does little to erase my early impressions of her.

4.5 stars, reluctantly rounded down to 4 where necessary.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Rachel’s struggles with alcoholism form the backbone of the story. Megan’s therapist, Kamal Abdic, is a Serbian (?) immigrant to England.

 

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