The Girl on the Train is an elegantly written mystery that exposes the ugly truths of its characters, and through them, ourselves. On the one hand its a searing indictment of our propensity to make assumptions based on severely limited information – a mere glimpse, an overheard utterance, or in the case of Rachel, one of the novel’s three protagonists, a daily peek through her train window during her commute at a couple she doesn’t know, which results in her fantasizing about their lives. The novel provides a harsh look at the reality of alcoholism; the deliberating impact it can have on the various facets of our lives. And it also shines the spotlight on infidelity; how both the culprit and the victim live on through its resonances. Debut author Paula Hawkins entwines these components with the page-turning traits of a ‘whodunnit’, and in doing so, The Girl on the Train deserves its inevitable Gone Girl comparisons. Both deal with the simple question: how well do we truly know the ones we love?
The Girl on the Train’s lethargic beginning belies the momentum it later accumulates, but in hindsight, it’s necessary in order for the reader to fully comprehend Rachel’s spiral. When we meet her she is depressed, unemployed, and deeply imbedded in an alcoholic fugue as she mourns her marriage. She’s evidently a sucker for punishment too; each day she makes an unnecessary journey from her home in Ashbury to London, passing by the home of her ex-husband and his new wife (and child), then the home of “Jess” and “Jason,” the ‘perfect’ married couple she habitually daydreams about. But dark clouds are gathering over Jess and Jason – real names Megan and Scott – and lightning strikes in the form of Megan’s disappearance, and possible murder. And the key to discerning the truth about the night Megan vanished lies in the murky, gin-and-wine-saturated memory of Rachel.
Further examination of the plot threatens to reveal spoilers; suffice to say, Hawkin’s proves wonderfully adept at weaving three first-person narratives (Rachel, her ex-husband’s new wife, Anna, and Megan) into a tight, compact narrative. There are moments I’d associate more with an episode of Poirot than a contemporary crime novel, such as the perpetrator of the novel’s greatest crime describing the event in detail, which always feels like a cop out; but by then I was so invested in Hawkin’s trio, so invested in their intertwined stories, I overlooked it.
The Girl on the Train is a slow-burn mystery, but its inevitable explosion is well worth waiting for.