Sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list, with multiple starred reviews, I had to find out what all the fuss was about over Paula Hawkins’s debut The Girl on the Train. A psychological thriller compared to Gillian Flynn and Alfred Hitchcock, The Girl on the Train is not my usual reading fare (I rarely read mysteries and when I do I am routinely disappointed). When Gone Girl came out, I had received an early manuscript before it published, and had enjoyed reading the first couple of chapters, but I got busy with other things and never finished the book with a modest print run that no one really expected would get much attention. I still haven’t read it. I wasn’t going to let that happen again. If The Girl on the Train was going to be the next Gone Girl, I was going to be in on the action.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Hawkins is a much better writer than most contemporary mystery novelists I’ve read. While I love mysteries, my primary gripe is that there are just so many bad writers filling the genre’s shelves (that’s me: Proud Book Snob since 1988). Too often the dialogue is stilted and unrealistic, the characterizations weak and glossed over, the characters themselves overused clichés, cardboard cutouts of Good Guys and Bad Guys. The story might be perfectly enjoyable and engrossing, but it’s so hard to tell when you have to ignore the worn-out phrase the author has just used for the fortieth time or make yourself believe that the hero just always magically knows the exact time without ever wearing a watch (I’m looking at you, Jack Reacher), or some other ridiculous marker of lazy writing. Paula Hawkins is not a lazy writer. Her prose flows easily, unhindered by either the convoluted contortions of so many bad writers or the third-grade-reading-level simplicity of truly bad writers. I found her dialogue believable and I really enjoyed the narrative of the primary character. Whatever flaws this novel has, the writing itself is solid.
Rachel, an alcoholic London commuter prone to blackouts, is still hung up on her ex-husband, now happily remarried, with a baby, and still living in the old Victorian home he once shared with Rachel. On her daily train commute past her old neighborhood she watches a young couple who appear to be deeply in love and happy, fantasizing about the details of their life, until she witnesses a brief act of infidelity, bringing her fantasies of their happy life crashing down. Shortly thereafter, the woman she watches from the train goes missing and Rachel debates if she should tell the police about the woman’s apparent lover to help in their investigation. Complicating matters is the knowledge that she herself was near the couple’s home on the night the woman went missing, and she feels as if she witnessed something critical to unraveling the mystery, but she awoke from her drunken stupor bloodied and safely at home, but with no recollection of what happened.
One of the things I most enjoyed about this book was the knowledge that the narrator is so unreliable, even to herself. Rachel and the reader both know that she’s an alcoholic, that she’s prone to blackouts, that her memories can’t be fully trusted. Her obsession with the couple she sees from the train and with her ex-husband furthers her unreliability: is she mentally unhinged, in addition to her alcoholism? How much is her perception of reality really real? I thought Hawkins did a terrific job with this sense of unreliability, adding on layers of complexity and revealing key moments in Rachel’s past that make the reader question her even more. I also though Hawkins’s depiction of alcoholism and accompanying blackouts was spot-on. Rachel’s immediate regret and self-loathing upon waking, the way she tries to tease out what’s real, the way she tries to fake or cover up her inability to remember her actions all rang true. That said, by the end, her blackouts started to become a little too convenient and I found it hard to believe that she blacked out every single time she drank. Rachel went from being a believable character with a serious but all-too-common flaw to a trope and a ham-handed plot device.
Because I am not a frequent reader of mysteries I am perhaps not the best person to judge the merits of the mystery itself. I never guess “whodunit” before I should and I like it that way. I read mysteries in much the same way I read any other book—as a treat to be savored rather than as a puzzle to be solved. So I can’t speak to whether this fulfills its promise as a mystery, although there really aren’t that many characters, so I find it unlikely that experienced mystery readers wouldn’t guess the ending. I thought the first three-quarters of the book was great—multi-layered, adding complications and key revelations at just the right time, pulling the reader further and further into these characters’ lives. A sucker-punch revelation halfway through was masterfully handled. But then everything wraps up very quickly and suddenly. I know Hawkins was probably going for an adrenaline-rush whammy of an ending, but the suddenness just didn’t seem to fit the carefully plotted story.
I listened to Penguin’s audiobook production of The Girl on the Train and I can’t say enough good things about Clare Corbett’s performance as Rachel. She was simply stunning. I listened to this in between books I’m judging for the Audies and I wished this was one I was judging so I could give her full marks. Her pacing, her cadence, her sense of confusion and puzzlement over her own memories added so much to the experience. This was, as the best audiobooks are, not reading, but truly acting the part. India Fisher’s and Louise Brealey’s performances as Anna (Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife) and Megan (the woman who goes missing) were less strong, but still respectable. Both sounded, at times, bored with their own narratives, but that’s not entirely inappropriate for the characters. In any case, their chapters are so short and infrequent in comparison to Rachel’s that Corbett’s performance alone is worth the listen. I will absolutely be seeking out more Clare Corbett titles.
Despite its flaws I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Girl on the Train, both to the legions of avid mystery fans and to people like me who tend to shy away from them. Hawkins’s writing is strong enough that I have high hopes that the plot and character flaws in her debut will lessen as she gains experience and I’ll certainly read her next one.
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. (P) 2015 Penguin Group USA.