Critics are comparing Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and that’s not a bad thing. For a writer, the mention of Gone Girl, which is still on the paperback bestseller list, is probably the best possible scenario. And the comparison is not completely off-base: Both novels make excellent use of unreliable narrators and slyly examine the darker side of relationships.
But The Girl on the Train — the first novel from former journalist Hawkins — stands just fine on its own, thank you. A compulsively readable nail-biter set in a London suburb that turns out to be anything but cozy, the book may actually have more in common thematically with the Hitchcock film Rear Window: It’s a psychological thriller that examines the perils of voyeurism and evaluating events to which you’re only a spectator.
The main (but not only) narrator is Rachel, a depressed, angry, bitter, blackout-prone alcoholic. “[S]obriety on the evening train is a challenge,” she confides miserably. Gin and tonic in a can is her drink of choice, though at home she often opts for wine. And then more wine.
Rachel rides the train into the city during the week, though she has lost her job and has no pressing need to do so. She lets her roommate believe she’s heading to work each day, but a reckoning is looming because money is getting tight.
These weekday rides provide the only forward momentum in her life: She’s stuck in a cycle of bad decision-making and lies, weeping frequently and clinging to dreams of better days with her ex-husband Tom, who left because of her drinking (he’s now remarried with a baby). Often Rachel wakes with the memory of calling or going to his house, sick to her stomach, unsure exactly what happened but knowing she did something dreadful.
Rachel’s only relief comes when she imagines the lives of a couple whose home she passes every day. She watches them from her window, making up names for them (Jess and Jason) and imagining the sweetness of their life together (“They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy, I can tell”). And then one day she sees something surprising, which leads to her becoming dangerously embroiled in a missing-persons case.
Meanwhile, an alternate narrator, Megan, discusses the highs and lows (mostly lows) of her own marriage. How her story entwines with Rachel’s and forms the backbone of this crafty, exhilarating novel, which also includes a few chapters narrated by Anna, Tom’s new wife, whose view of the erratic Rachel is less than sympathetic and starting to verge on real worry: “Detective Riley doesn’t know just how dangerous Rachel can be.”
Hawkins carefully sets up this intriguing premise, one moment playing on our empathy for the grieving Rachel, the next stirring new suspicions of her. Can we believe her version of events when by her own admission, her memory is untrustworthy? “It’s possible I might have slipped on the steps. I have a memory of it, but I can’t tell whether the memory belongs to Saturday night or to another time. There have been many slips, on many staircases.”
Readers, however, have it easier: They won’t soon forget The Girl on the Train.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.