The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train

When I started this, knowing that it was one of the big It Books of the year, I was pretty sure I knew what to expect. I had read the publisher-provided description, which goes like this:

“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?”

Based on that, I was sure that I could make some pretty safe assumptions about what would happen in the story. A girl, bored on her daily commute, notices a particular couple every day when the train pauses behind their house, and she amuses herself by making up stories about their life. And then she sees, I don’t know, the husband strangling the wife or something like that, and gets drawn into the investigation surrounding two strangers.

Sounds right, doesn’t it? Just a normal story with lots of opportunities for reflection on perception vs. reality and how we never really know what goes on behind closed doors. The Girl on the Train sounded, in short, like a perfectly nice and very literary exploration of these themes.

I am delighted to report, therefore, that The Girl on the Train is nothing like this. It is melodramatic to the point of hysteria, it is convoluted, it is absurd, it is consistently cranked to eleven. The Girl on the Train is the best worst Lifetime Original Movie ever made.

(mild spoiler warning: I’m going to describe exactly what Rachel saw, and the circumstances that set off the action. Normally I wouldn’t really view this as a spoiler, especially since it all gets revealed in the first few chapters, but since all the descriptions and reviews I’ve read have kept this information super vague, I thought it was better to be cautious. So, if you want to be completely surprised by the events that start the plot, don’t continue!)

Rachel, the main character of The Girl on the Train, has joined Mary Katherine Blackwood in my unofficial Unreliable Narrators Hall of Fame. Rachel, we quickly learn, is not just some bored commuter picking a random couple and making up stories about them. The couple, who Rachel calls Jason and Jess (but are actually named Scott and Megan) live a few blocks away from Rachel’s old house – the layout is the same, even. Rachel’s former home is now occupied by her ex-husband, Tom, and his new wife (and former mistress), Anna. Rachel, frankly, is a mess. She takes the train into London everyday, but actually lost her job months ago because her drinking was out of control. She still drinks excessively, and is unable to stop visiting her old neighborhood and watching what goes on in her old house. For her, the fantasy she’s created for “Jason” and “Jess” is a way for her to deal with her failed marriage – because Jason and Jess seem so happy, and their life seems so perfect, Rachel can console herself with the knowledge that someone, at least, managed to get it right.

And then one day, the train pauses by the house, and Rachel sees “Jess” in the garden, kissing another man. Rachel is shocked, and feels personally betrayed. The next day, she learns that the woman she calls Jess has disappeared. And, because this isn’t dramatic enough, Rachel was in the neighborhood on the night of the disappearance, but because she was blackout drunk, she can’t remember if she saw anything.

(are you excited yet? Strap in, because this crazy train is just leaving the station)

Rachel is one of three narrators – the other two are Megan (aka Jess) and Anna, the woman who had an affair with Rachel’s husband and then married him. Each woman is unhappy in her current circumstances, and each is her own variety of unreliable and vaguely repellent. The time frame skips around, with the majority of Megan’s chapters taking place months before the main action occurs while the other two women’s chapters take place at mostly the same time. This was my one big complaint with the story, and it’s really more of a warning: each chapter is labeled with a date, and you need to pay attention to them. I didn’t, and was really confused when I read about Megan’s disappearance in one chapter, and then the next one opened with her at home.

Look, this book is ridiculous. But it’s fun ridiculous, like when you’re wine-drunk at 1 am and decide to watch William and Kate in its entirety. Not that that’s ever happened to me.

It’s not a mistake that this book is being advertised as the next Gone Girl, and how you felt about Gillian Flynn’s rollercoaster of screaming insanity will be a good way to gauge how you’ll feel about this one. Look, even I started rolling my eyes once I got to the ending and everything went fully off the rails (seriously, it is the most Lifetime ending you’ve ever read in your life, and that is a compliment), but the fact is that I tore through this book in two days.

The rights have already been purchased by some major film studio, which is a real shame, because this book was meant to be brought to life by Tori Spelling and filmed in a shitty backlot at Lifetime Studios. It would be called Next Stop: Danger, (or, if they wanted to go subtle, The Wife) and it would be amazing.

Verdict: four out of five stars


Filed under Review

3 responses to “The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

  1. This is one of those books that I ran out and bought as soon as it was released, yet still have not read. Thank you for your review. You have motivated me.

  2. Sometimes it’s nice to keep the audiences guessing as to what’s in a film.

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