After being fired from her job, depressed alcoholic divorcee Rachel rides the train every day to trick her landlady into believing she is going to work. The train regularly passes by a couple’s house, and Rachel imagines their idyllic lives. However, one day, Rachel spots the wife with a man who is not her husband, and shortly thereafter, the woman goes missing.
Paula Hawkins’ debut novel is one that both requires patience and rewards readers for displaying it. From the onset, Rachel is not a particularly likeable protagonist. She comes across as a helpless sad sack who is hopelessly adrift in life. It takes several chapters of meandering through her ineptitude and daydreaming before the book finds its footing, but once it does, it stays (pardon the train pun) on track.
Like any good writer, Hawkins leaves her characters room to grow and change. But in place of cheesy epiphany moments, she deftly peels back layers to reveal what was hiding there the whole time. In this way, she alters our perceptions not only of Rachel, but of her ex-husband Tom, Tom’s antagonistic (from Rachel’s perspective, anyway) replacement wife Anna, of Megan, the missing woman, and of Scott, Megan’s conflicted husband. Because the novel offers multiple perspectives – the narrators alternate between Rachel, Anna, and Megan – we gain a more nuanced view of the who and the why as the novel progresses. This nuance is compounded by Rachel’s unreliable memory, which lends a hazy ambiguity to the proceedings.
Hawkins also succeeds in creating plenty of red herrings. Mysteries tend to involve a certain degree of misdirection, and while Hawkins is guilty of that, she never changes course in a way that seems wildly improbable. The extent to which readers will welcome or scorn the final twist will vary, but there are both more predictable and more contrived ways for the book to have wrapped up.
The Girls on the Train is a divisive book. Some will find it an effectively engaging mashup of Alfred Hitchcock and Gillian Flynn; others will regard it as a confusing slog through broken lives. Regardless of your final take on it, it merits reading if only to see how your reaction to it changes from beginning to end.