Mom Book Of The Month: The Girl On The Train

If you loved Gone Girl, you need to read Paula Hawkins' new novel, The Girl On The Train

If you’ve been anywhere near a bookstore in the past couple of a months, chances are you will have seen The Girl on the Train. There is a ton of buzz surrounding Paula Hawkins’ novel; it has has received a heck of a marketing push for a debut, and like any truly juicy thriller of the past few years, it’s already garnering comparisons to Gone Girl. So does it live up to the hype?

Short answer: if you like well-written, white-knuckle commercial thrillers with a deeply flawed protagonist, then yes. It doesn't capture a cultural conversation in the same way Gone Girl did, but it is absolutely worth the time it takes to read. And if you’re anything like me, I suspect that won’t be too much time at all, because Hawkins’ is compulsively readable. 

The Girl on the Train focuses on Rachel, a commuter who takes the same train to London from Ashbury every day. Every day, the train stops at a literal cross-roads in the tracks that is also an emotional hot spot for Rachel, and every day she looks out the train window and into the home of a couple she calls ‘Jason’ and ‘Jess.’ Rachel concocts an increasingly-elaborate fantasy around the pair, who come to represent her idea of domestic perfection. When one day she he sees something that shatters her perception of their perfection and then discovers that ‘Jess’ has gone missing, Rachel becomes determined to figure out what really happened. But to do that, Rachel has to wade into frightening, humiliating world of her own memories of that night.

The problem is that Rachel is an alcoholic. Not an Olivia-Pope-style stress-drinker: a full-blown blackout, falling-down-drunk alcoholic. She is - as several characters tell her - a mess. She is pathetic, self-destructive, and infuriating, but it is a tribute to Hawkins’ deft portrayal that Rachel is never entirely entirely alienating. 

In and of itself, this is not new. After all, detectives - amateur or otherwise -  under the influence are a staple of the mystery genre from Raymond Chandler to Thomas Pynchon. But the difference is that those characters are men. What Hawkins provides a deeply flawed, often unsympathetic female character: a woman who is as angry, messy, and determined as her male counterparts are allowed to be. 

Hawkins’ narrative alternates between Rachel and two other women: the missing ‘Jess’ and a woman with a connection to Rachel’s ex-husband. To delve too much into this would spoil the novel; part of the pleasure of reading The Girl on the Train is discovering more and more details of these three narrators’ lives as they reveal them, and as well as the thematic threads that unite them. As tension builds and the mystery unfolds, it becomes clear that each of these three women is shaped in some way by motherhood (or lack thereof), with varying degrees of heartbreak. 

The Girl on the Train is a dark and gripping mystery of domestic power and betrayal. When you finish it you’ll feel like you’ve been through the wringer, but until that time you won’t be able to put it down. So my advice is: save it for a long commute. 

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