Take an idea from Alfred Hitchcock—the one about looking in windows—stir in a moderate to heavy mix of paranoia, obsession, loneliness, drunkenness, lying, cheating and self pity, spice it up with a heavy dose of psychological twists, then write it all down. What do you end up with? Well, if you’re an experienced writer and possess a certain skill for plotting, you just might end up with a bestseller that goes through ten printings in three months, selling 1,000,000 copies—and that’s just getting started.
I live in a very small town with a public library the size of my second bedroom but when I asked to reserve The Girl on the Train, a new book by Paula Hawkins, the librarian said, “Okay. You’re number 338 on the waiting list.” I got lucky though and a week later came across an “express copy” the library circulates without taking reservations. If you can grab it off the shelf before someone beats you to it, it’s yours for two weeks. But I doubt anyone would take that long to read this book.
Readers of The Girl on the Train have been comparing it to Gillian Flynn’s 2012 megahit, Gone Girl. The comparison is understandable but not something that occurred to me at any point in reading the Paula Hawkins book. Gone Girl is a suspense novel and The Girl on the Train is another suspense novel that, like the earlier book uses psychology to build a story. There is a good deal of flashiness in Gone Girl that you will not find in the Hawkins book. And there are a good many things in it that you won’t find in Gone Girl.
Rachel Watson, a thirty-ish woman living in a small village an hour outside of London rides a commuter train every morning at the same time, and at the end of the workday takes the train back to her suburban village. She likes to look out the train windows and observe the doings of people living in the houses along the train’s route. The problem is, she shapes what she sees into romantic imaginings that ultimately become her undoing. Those fantasies aren’t helped by the fact that Rachel is half-drunk most of the time, commuting to a non-existent job, and seriously pining for her ex-husband. Oh, and she also has trouble remembering things, has blackouts and often staggers home mysteriously bloodied. Five pages into the book you already know that Rachel Watson is a mess and heading for worse.
With multiple narrators, non-linear time jumps and the writer juggling so many moving parts, getting into the story was slow for me but as it reached midpoint the suspense took hold. We follow Rachel’s progression, turn the page and are suddenly seeing it through the eyes of the woman she’s watching from the train. Five pages later it’s back to Rachel, and in a sudden switch the story is being told through a third narrator, Rachel’s ex-husband’s current wife, Anna. Who is to be believed? Who can we trust? Again I am reminded of the Hitchcock technique.
In Rachel’s fantasy the woman she sees from the train is named Jess and her handsome and loving husband is Jason. Rachel imagines them living the life of a happy couple, the very life she herself always dreamed until that dream was shattered. One day, Rachel sees from the train the woman kissing someone other than her husband and a part of her fantasy is badly rattled. It appears that Jess, who is really a troubled wife named Megan, is not who she appears to be. This is the first clue that no one in The Girl on the Train is who they appear to be. Jess-Megan disappears and Rachel becomes obsessed with what happened to her. A day or two later the tabloids announce that Megan Hipwell is missing and Rachel realizes it’s “Jess” the woman of her half-drunk fantasies. She becomes desperate to help, to inject herself into the investigation. Meanwhile, she has been late night drunk dialing her ex-husband and sending nasty emails to him. The big complication is that her ex-husband and his wife live just three doors down from the missing woman, in the same house that Rachel lived in when she was married to Tom, her ex. And believe it or not, it gets even more complicated. She goes to the police to tell them what she saw but they dismiss her as an unreliable drunk who can’t stay away.
It is hard sometimes to like or find sympathy with such a flawed character as Rachel Watson, but that can be of no concern to the book’s author for whom Rachel’s discomposure serves to heighten suspense. In Ms Hawkins’ story, preconceptions of who people are and the sense of identity are built upon shifting sands. No one is who they seem to be in this novel. By the end of the book Rachel has become a sympathetic character, someone unimaginable in the book’s first half. It is growth and development like this that earmark the writer.
But don’t take just my word for it. Have a look at what Stephen King tweeted after reading The Girl on the Train… The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: Really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The alcoholic narrator is dead perfect. —January 26, 2015.