LitStack Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

by Sharon Browning

The Girl on the TrainPaula Hopkins
Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books
Release Date:  January 13, 2015
ISBN 978-1-59463-366-9

Rachel Watson may not have hit rock bottom yet, but she’s pretty darned close.  Her husband Tom divorced her after having an affair and then marrying “the other woman”.  She had started drinking back when she and Tom had tried and failed to start a family; now drinking is a constant part of her life, and it’s often not a pretty thing.  She lost her job after a three hour liquid lunch and an embarrassing drunken harassment of a client.  She’s getting older, she’s getting heavier, she’s disappointed virtually everyone she knows, and yet she just can’t give up the past, she just can’t seem to move on.

She lives in the second bedroom of a kind-of friend from college, Cathy; it was only supposed to be for a few months, until she got back on her feet after the divorce, but now it’s been two years.  In order to hide her job loss from Cath, Rachel rides the train to and from London every week day:  the 8:04 in the morning, and the 5:56 in the evening.

Riding the train has become the only dependable thing in Rachel’s life.  She takes comfort in seeing the same faces every day, even if she doesn’t interact with them.  She enjoys seeing the same houses go by (one of them is the house she used to own with Tom; he still lives there, now with the “other woman”, Anna, and their infant daughter).  But her favorite house to watch is the one that is across from the signal light where the train often has to sit for a few minutes before moving on.  It is just up the street from her former home, and in it live a young couple that she has dubbed “Jason” and “Jess”.  In her imagination Jason is a kind, protective doctor helping others in times of need;  blonde, waifish Jess must have been an artist, or in the fashion industry.  In Rachel’s mind, they love each other very much; in fact, she believes that they are the perfect, golden couple.

While we’re stuck at the red signal, I look for them.  Jess is often out there in the mornings, especially in the summer, drinking her coffee.  Sometimes, when I see her there, I feel as though she sees me, too.  I feel as though she looks right back at me, and I want to wave.  I’m too self-conscious.  I don’t see Jason quite so much, he’s away a lot with work.  But even if they’re not there, I think about what they might be up to.  Maybe this morning they’ve both got the day off and she’s lying in bed while he makes breakfast, or maybe they’ve gone for a run together, because that’s the sort of thing they do.  (Tom and I used to run together on Sundays, me going at slightly above my normal pace, him at about half his, just so we could run side by side.)  Maybe Jess is upstairs in the spare room, painting, or maybe they’re in the shower together, her hands pressed against the tiles, his hands on her hips.

Then one Friday morning, Rachel sees Jess in her garden but the man with her isn’t Jason.  (“He’s a family friend; he’s her brother or Jason’s brother… He’s a cousin from Australia, staying a couple of weeks; he’s Jason’s oldest friend, best man at their wedding.”)  But then they kiss “long and deep”, and the train pulls away from the light, with Rachel’s world rocked to its core as her carefully crafted illusions start to shatter.  And that’s only the beginning of what is to come, as  the next day, the woman that Rachel has christened Jess disappears.

The Girl on the Train is a riveting, fast paced psychological thriller that seems simplistic on the surface, but continues to lead the reader down a rabbit hole where nothing can be assumed or taken at face value.  Told from three different viewpoints – Rachel, Megan (aka “Jess”) and Anna (the “other woman”) – insights intersect but never interact, and every time a piece of the puzzle is pushed into place, another level of complexity is revealed.

While there are no overt red herrings in The Girl on the Train, because we see the story unfold from the eyes of broken, fragmented people, we are only given broken, fragmented information to go on.  At times this can be frustrating (for instance, Rachel constantly promises herself and others that she will stop drinking merely to rationalize her way to a drunken bender a few days – or hours – later, which almost without exception undermines whatever intentions she may have had – you want to just take her by the shoulders and shake her until she realizes how stupid she’s being), but then we realize that this, too, is part of the larger story.  This is human frailty.  This is how life often plays out, not just how its plays out in the pages of a mystery novel.

And the pacing of the novel is exceptional.  Just when we feel like we’re going in circles, the center starts to unravel and the action accelerates, with some answers clicking into place but others blossoming anew.  The ending of the book is quite amazing because it hits at so many different levels – sometimes at assumptions we didn’t realize we were carrying until they are dispelled.  That, my friends, is mighty fine writing.

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