What I'm Reading: The Girl on the Train

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Synopsis from Goodreads:

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

A compulsively readable, emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller that draws comparisons to
Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, or Before I Go to Sleep, this is an electrifying debut embraced by readers across markets and categories.

It seems like everyone has been reading this lately, and I have to say that, despite the hype, the mixed reviews, and the frequent comparisons to Gone Girl, I actually quite enjoyed The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.  I think Hawkins crafted a tight and engaging mystery/thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock.  This book especially reminded me of Rear Window, and the idea of a woman getting caught up in a mystery surrounding the people she voyeuristically watches from the train every day is pretty intriguing.  Hawkins does a good job of delivering on the interesting premise of her novel - I felt very wrapped up as the mystery unfolded, and the ending left me satisfied, as all of my questions were answered and any loose ends resolved. 

A lot of people seem to dislike the main character Rachel, describing her as stereotypical, weak, and unrelatable.  I didn't have as many problems with her, and I actually liked that she is a seriously flawed character.  She's struggling with the demise of her marriage, depression, the loss of her job, and alcoholism.  It's frustrating to watch her make bad decisions, most of which begin with a drink (or two or three), but addiction is complicated and messy.  The fact that Rachel is dealing with deep seated mental health and emotional issues with alcohol instead of therapy and medication just compounds all of her struggles, and this made her a compelling and interesting character to me.  I don't like that her life is so difficult and that she makes such stupid decisions, but she's human and I can understand her situation and struggles.  I definitely think that Hawkins could have done a better job flushing Rachel out; at times, her alcoholism does feel a bit like a plot device, but I don't think Hawkins set out to write a tightly crafted character drama.  I just liked following a main character who is struggling with some really difficult things in her life, things that a lot of us have experienced to some degree but don't often get talked about in literature, and I thought that Hawkins used Rachel's struggles to make her novel quite rich and engaging. 

The other characters felt less dimensional to me to certain degrees, with Megan being the most complex after Rachel and Anna being the most archetypal.  Hawkins certainly seems very interested in issues surrounding womanhood, marriage, and motherhood, and she explores a lot of the difficulties and emotional struggles that many women face when getting married and having children.  It was interesting to look at the sort of domestic neuroses that can grow out of these situations through three very different women, though I found Anna's sections to be the most difficult to get into.  She felt like such a stereotype of the selfish mistress who only cares about herself and the man she loves, never considering that her actions might hurt others, particularly the wronged wife.  I think that a richer examination of Anna's internal life would have made her a more realistic and relatable character. 

In terms of plot, I thought that The Girl on the Train was very satisfying.  When it comes to mystery/thrillers, I'm not one who can just "enjoy the ride."  My overall impression rests so much on how everything comes together at the end, what answers we are given for the questions that the story raises.  It's hard to pull this off, and I think that a lot of books in this genre try to do too much, setting impossibly high expectations that cannot be satisfactorily resolved by the last page.  It's almost as if the mystery itself is too big and there's no way for everything to be tied up neatly at the end.  The Girl on the Train isn't the most original and unexpected mystery, and its twists and reveals aren't huge and totally out of left field.  But by not making the mystery itself too big, I thought that Hawkins was able to craft an engaging story that feels very full and complete by the end.  I wasn't left thinking, "Well that would never happen," or "What about this unexplained aspect of the plot?"  I liked that the story kept me guessing and wondering "whodunit" throughout and that the final explanation fit with what had come before. 

A good read for fans of the mystery/thriller genre.  Four out of five stars. 

7 comments:

  1. This sounds like the type of mystery I would like. And I am definitely adding it to my to-read list. I feel that many stories billed as mysteries these days fall into what I like to call the M. Night trap. Going for the biggest and most earth shattering twists, twists that are difficult to see coming because they aren't grounded in the story that came before, or predictable because they are simply the most extreme ending possible. It makes me think of Michael Scott (of Office Fame)'s idea for a commercial, where there is a girl in the desert, but camera pulls back and its a sandbox in a playground, but then the camera pulls back and the playgrounds in a ... never ending world altering twists. I think it is more satisfying when the mystery is more straightforward. People use "predictable" as a bad word, but I think the best mystery novels are predictable, in so far as they give you enough clues to put it together or "predict" the ending as a reader.

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    1. I'm so with you! I definitely like my mystery/thrillers to be "predictable," not in the sense that it's easy to figure out what is going to happen, but rather than a reader could theoretically put the pieces together based on the information/evidence that we get along the way. And I think the bed mysteries invite readers to speculate and then simply flush out the answer at the end, rather than reveal some big out of the blue twist that feels like it's just been shoved in. You should definitely read this one!

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    2. Yeah, the worst endings to mysteries are like lightning out of blue sky, deus ex machine.

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  2. I'm so glad you were able to enjoy it!

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    1. Thanks! I'm really glad I lowered my expectations like you suggested and tried not to compare it to Gone Girl. It really helped me enjoy this as its own piece.

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  3. YESSS Thanks for the wonderful review, I've been really intrigued especially as a thriller fan and the frequent comparisons to Gone Girl. I like the way you described the flawed main character and think would find her fascinating.

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    1. I'm glad it was helpful! This is definitely thrilling, though a bit toned down from Gone Girl (it's hard to top Amy Dunne!). The main character is really flawed, but I think that just makes her a better character. We're all flawed in our own ways, and she's dealing with some very real struggles, which made for a rich and complex narration. Enjoy!

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