The Girl on the Train

When I commuted in Paris, I took the Métro.  The majority of the lines run underground, but a few of them have sections that burst out into sunlight.  I didn't have a set schedule of lines to take; a few different routes would get me to the same place.  If I wanted, I could walk to the 11 and ride it all the way down the hill from which Belleville and Ménilmontant gaze upon the heart of Paris.  The cars on the 11 (the brown line, a rather fecal brown, alas) were a bit rattletrap, and so when gravity shot the train down the hill, everything jumbled around and it was mildly exhilarating, as much as a commute/headlong rush down an underground can be exhilarating.  Sometimes I worried the brakes would fail.  Then I practiced my Gallic shrug and got on with life.

Line 5, on which my stop was situated, crosses the Seine, and for a moment, I would see the city: Nôtre Dame and Île de la Cité, the Tour Eiffel, the Tour Montparnasse.  Then back into darkness again.  My commute was ever changing: it was an organic thing.  I never saw the same people on my trains (or if I did, I was far too busy adopting a posture of Gallic indifference to notice).

Part of that experience is why The Girl on the Train's narrative grabbed me: Rachel (the titular girl) passes the same house every day on her commute into London on the (also titular) train.  She often sees the inhabitants outside, and she's invented names and a whole life for them.  In her mind, Jess and Jason (not their real names--these are the names Rachel's given them) are the perfect couple, and Rachel finds solace in the normalcy of their lives.  Seeing her fantasy couple day after day when the train makes a stop at a light keeps Rachel grounded.  It's a tenuous link to reality, as Rachel's life is, not to put too fine a point on it, a complete mess.

A few years ago, Rachel's husband, Tom, had an affair.  He left her and had a baby with his new wife, Anna.  Rachel and Tom had been trying to have a baby, but with no success.  Discouraged, Rachel turned to drinking.  Now, she's single, living with an acquaintance from university, fired from her job for drunkenness, and slurping canned gin and tonics at every opportunity.

Let me take a moment to say that I had no idea one could purchase a can of G&T in Great Britain.  This sounds simultaneously gross and intriguing.

Anyway.  Rachel drinks so much that she experiences total blackouts, and often gets off the train to go to her old house.  Incidentally, it's in the same neighborhood as Jess' house--the one she watches every day from the train.  One night, she catches the eye of a red haired chap on the train, and she's pretty sure she gets off at that stop with: the stop where her old house is.  The next morning, she wakes up in bed covered in blood and in her skivvies.  She has no memory of the night before, only that she walked through the underpass and... nothing.  Later that day, a woman is reported missing: it's Jess, only her real name is Megan, and her husband's real name is Scott.  And nothing is what Rachel thought it was.

Hawkins has slowly been alternating narrative point of view between Rachel and Megan (pre-disappearance), and when she tosses Anna into the mix, it gets even cattier. Not that I think women should be catty--au contraire!  Anna's supremely self-centered way of thinking reminded me a bit of Amy in Gone Girl (a book to which The Girl on the Train has been compared, and rightly so, for the tautness of the writing and the unflinching look into the ugly side of human nature--which is most of it, but that's neither here nor there).

Rachel does everything she can to make you not like her, and yet, I found myself rooting for her.  Every time she made a dumb mistake or had yet another drink, I still cared about her.

And as in my review of Gone Girl, I can't divulge too much of the plot without ruining the whole thing.  Hawkins creates strong characters, thick tension, and a solid setting.  I did guess part of the Big Reveal about halfway through the book, but rather than being disappointed by this, I felt validated that I had picked up on the cues Hawkins gave in the narration.  My only quibble would be the ending.  Again, to return to Gone Girl, a lot of people I know didn't like the ending.  I loved it.  I thought it was perfect for the book and for the characters.  In The Girl on the Train, the ending fit, but it happened too fast.  I felt like I slammed into a brick wall and slowly slid down like a cartoon character.  That's it?  It's not an ambiguous ending; it's a short ending, and it doesn't address the issue brought up by the actions of one of the main characters slightly earlier in the book (well, that was ambiguous).  If you must, click for the spoiler:

 On the whole, however, The Girl on the Train was a fantastic read and something I'd recommend to pretty much anyone.  I'll never think about commuting the same way.


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