The Girl on the Train is one of those books that, like many of its characters, seems like one thing when you start it and turns into something completely different by the end. Despite the little snippets that precede the first chapter that hint at a murder, the beginning of the story feels like it’s simply going to be about the struggles of a young woman named Rachel who appears to be a severe alcoholic. She passes the house she used to share with her ex-husband, who now lives there with his current wife, while riding her train to and from work. In order to deal with seeing her former love nest every day, she buys canned mixed drinks to guzzle on the ride. To distract her from thinking too much about Tom, her ex with whom she’s clearly still in love, she also takes note of another family down the street and creates an entire fantasy life for them, including what they do for jobs and even what their names are. In Rachel’s mind, this couple are named Jason and Jess. He’s a doctor and she’s a painter.
Soon, we find that the brain canon she’s created for this couple is all wrong, at first when she sees the woman she has named Jess kissing someone other than her husband. Then the woman goes missing. For reasons she can’t explain, even to herself, Rachel takes it upon herself to help Scot, the husband of the missing woman, whose real name turns out to be Megan. In the process, she gets mucked up in the lives of her ex-husband and his new wife and child. In one of about a thousand twists, Rachel slowly recovers a memory she had blacked out because of being staggering drunk and comes to the startling realization that people she knows are actually directly connected with Megan’s disappearance.
I said at first that the story was told in first person, but one of the beauties of this fascinating book is that there are multiple narrators, with Rachel’s being the chief of three. We also hear from Megan, the missing woman, and Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex. Using the device of going back and forth through time and hearing the same event from multiple points of view, we see how easily people can misinterpret the actions of others because they lack all the information and go into a situation with preconceived notions. Slowly, the missing pieces to this puzzle of a story are filled in with the result being the realization that nearly no one involved is exactly as he or she seems, with one character turning out to be literally not the person he or she claims to be.
I loved this book. There were times I couldn’t wait to get to the next page (or screen in this case) and there were also passages when I had to stop reading because I dreaded knowing what might be coming next. I was so invested in Rachel’s character by the end that I put the book down for a while a couple times to put off having something bad happen to her. A particularly harrowing example is a scene in which she is genuinely trying to do something helpful and runs into Anna at a place where she knows her presence will be misinterpreted. In a move reminiscent of Joey putting Little Women in the freezer on Friends, I closed the Kindle app, put my tablet down and left the room because I didn’t want to know what happened next. That, to me, is the sign of a master storyteller.
Another powerful tool Ms. Hawkins uses is narrative voice. Each narrator is clearly delineated. By the last half of the story, names aren’t needed to know who is talking. They were that well defined. We see the same event through three completely different sets of eyes. I felt like I was put inside the head of each woman. It’s hard for me to believe that this was Ms. Hawkins’ debut novel. I highly recommend this book.
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, is published by Riverhead Books and is available through all major bookstores and online booksellers.