Although Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train has been at the top of the bestseller list, I have resisted reading the book – because reviewers have compared the story to Gillian Flynn’ Gone Girl – and I did not want to revisit a sordid tale with miserable characters and an ending with no acceptable possibilities. But The Girl on the Train is so much better. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Hawkins understands that the audience wants twists and turns, red herrings, and scary scenes in a psychological crime thriller – but above all, readers want closure and relief – hopefully with the villain finally being defeated. Hawkins, unlike Flynn, delivers.
The story flips back and forth from several unreliable narrators – basically, almost everyone is lying to someone. Rachel is the girl on the train; she imagines lives for people she sees in houses along a short rail stop. Have you ever played that game sitting in a restaurant or a park, watching people go by – wondering what their lives are like – sometimes creating fantasies about who they are and where they are going? A friend tells me she has done this with her husband, as she blithely identifies who belongs to the neighborhood and who is on vacation. Rachel has an insider’s view to the game; she is divorced from Tom who lives in one of the houses with his new wife and baby. A few doors down, she creates a better life for neighbors Megan and Scott, assigning the perfect marriage to this couple – until she sees Megan with another man, as the train moves on.
Eventually, all these characters connect – and Megan’s disappearance fuels the beginning of the mystery. Hawkins cleverly introduces police detectives and a psychiatrist into the mix, as Rachel’s credibility as the key narrator continues to fall apart. As each character’s fatal flaw unravels, Hawkins changes the scene and the possibilities of whodunnit: Rachel, an alcoholic with blackouts, leaving her wondering what she did in those empty hours; Scott, Megan’s husband, a secret wife beater; Tom, the corrosive liar. Even Anna, the new wife with a guilt complex, becomes a possible co-conspirator.
Since it’s more fun to read the story yourself and try to figure out the next turn, I won’t tell you more or offer any spoilers. But – if you liked the dark side of Gone Girl, you will probably like The Girl on the Train. And – if you did not like Gone Girl – you will find The Girl on the Train a better thought-out drama.
The Girl on the Train is Paula Hawkins’ debut in the crime thriller genre, and I can’t wait until her next book. I may even check out some of earlier books – romance novels, written under her pseudonym, Amy Silver.