The Girl on the Train is one of 2016’s most popular books. If you like twisty thrillers with characters whose observations and revelations you absolutely cannot trust, then Paula Hawkins’s debut novel is the book for you.
The Girl on the Train is set in England. Rachel rides the train from her suburban home into London every morning. In the evening she catches the 5:56 train home. This gives her enough time to stop at a liquor store and pick up a small bottle of wine or a pack of cocktails in cans. The train stops briefly behind a row of suburban houses and their backyards end right at the tracks. Two houses in the row fascinate Rachel. One is the home of striking young couple, Jason and Jess, who Rachel decides are perfect. The other house, just a few doors down, is the one Rachel used to live in, and made a home in, until her husband divorced her and remarried, to a woman named Anna. One morning on the ride in, Rachel sees a secret in the house of her perfect couple. A few days later, Jess, the woman in that couple, is reported missing. Rachel, convinced that what she saw is important, inserts herself into the investigation, and soon layer after layer of her deceptions peel away. We see how desperate and despairing she is. Rachel is a blackout drinker. If she isn’t an alcoholic yet, she’s only a baby-step away from it. As the story unfolds, told from shifting first-person points of view, we learn that Rachel’s drinking is meant to self-medicate a profound grief. We get glimpses into the life of the missing woman and the demons that drive her. Rachel has lied to everyone including herself, but she has also been lied to, and repeatedly. Hawkins lets us know that we can’t trust Rachel’s word on things early, and elegantly; in fact, shortly after Rachel tells us about Jason and Jess. It takes a little longer to decipher the untruths the other characters are telling us. It was difficult to be in Rachel’s head for so long, partly because Hawkins depicts the behavior of an alcohol-dependent person very well. Rachel has no boundaries, and some of the things she chooses to do in the book defied plausibility for me. The first-person voice of another character, Megan, was enough like Rachel’s that it was a little confusing, and added to the sense of despondency the whole book carries. Still, there are gems. There is a moment when Rachel tells us exactly what a perfect gin and tonic should be. She describes the tonic (only one brand will do), the sound of the liquid hissing over the ice, the smell of the slice of lime. She is meditating on this “perfect” drink as she buys a four-pack of drinks-in-a-can. In the end, the book shows us that an angry, depressed woman can still have a kind of power, and the truth of the perfect woman’s disappearance is fully revealed. Hawkins does a good job of trying up the plot threads. The train Rachel rides each day is well-used, too, as a metaphor for Rachel’s struggle with alcohol, and her whole life. It’s a back-and-forth journey that goes nowhere. I don’t know if I completely believed the final chapter of The Girl on the Train, but I want to believe it. Maybe Rachel really does have a chance.