Monday, January 12, 2015

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN :: Paula Hawkins

The Girl On The Train is a fast-paced psychological thriller that admittedly kept me reading compulsively while at the same time distracting me with its too-similar and unlikable character profiles. Rachel is a 30-something alcoholic divorcee, prone to blackouts and an overactive imagination. In a tailspin after being unable to conceive a child with then-husband Tom, Rachel ultimately loses her marriage and her beloved home to Tom’s mistress Anna, with whom he now has a baby. Unable to let go, Rachel continues to harass Tom and Anna with phone calls and the occasional trespass.

Rachel also lost her job following an alcohol-fueled blowout at a client lunch, but is too embarrassed to tell anyone. In order to keep up the ruse, she continues to take the commuter train into London and back to her flat every day. But Rachel has other reasons for her train-riding ways. The train runs behind a row of houses, including her own prior home, and her depression and imagination draw her to a couple living a few doors down from Tom and Anna. She becomes obsessed with “Jess” and “Jason” (in reality Megan and Scott) observing them and painting them with the glorious, loving life she believes she had, and still should have, with Tom:

I don’t know their names, either, so I had to name them myself…They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be. 

During her “commute” on the train one day, Rachel sees something shocking and unexpected at Megan and Scott’s. When Megan goes missing on a night Rachel is blundering around her old neighborhood in a blackout state, Rachel feels compelled to find out what happened, which requires her to piece together her fractured and often non-existent memory.

The somewhat Hitchcockian premise of Girl is a great one, and the story proceeds like an express train down a greased track. Told mostly from Rachel’s perspective, with intermittent sections from Megan’s and Anna’s point of view, the reader is left with an admittedly unreliable narrator, trying to piece together events along with Rachel. The “facts” are teased out slowly despite the fast pace of the book, which only increased the tension and need to keep turning pages.

Where Girl failed for me was in the character portrayals. I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling plot. Indeed I think some of the character issues I had stemmed from the author’s attempts to keep the reader guessing. The more similar and unlikable all the characters are, the more difficult it might be to suss out the true baddest of the bad. Unlikable characters I can deal with, so long as they don’t feel homogenous (i.e., women/men all drawn with strikingly similar character traits) and their actions don’t start to stretch credibility. Here, both of those occurred, and it took me out of the story a bit.

I was uneasy spending this much time in the head of a raging alcoholic, the author did a great job putting the reader inside that damaged mindset while keeping the story compelling. No easy task. If you read crime fiction you get used to characters making poor decision after poor decision, but at a certain point Rachel began to wear thin. Which I also must admit may stem from my life experiences with alcoholics, maybe it just hit too close to home. Overall, I thought the author did a great job telling the story through a very troubled mind.

STREET SENSE: A gripping psychological thriller that I couldn't put down, despite my feeling the character issues mucked up the works a bit.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: I was trespassing. That’s what it felt like this morning, because it’s their territory now, it’s Tom and Anna’s and Scott and Megan’s. I’m the outsider, I don’t belong there, and yet everything is so familiar to me…It feels like coming home—not just to any home, but a childhood home, a place left behind a lifetime ago; it’s the familiarity of walking up stairs and knowing exactly which one is going to creak.

COVER NERD SAYS: Girl has great packaging. Both the image and the font portray movement, which for me mirrored the book literally and figuratively. The somewhat blurred visual reflects both the actual view from a fast-moving train as well as the perhaps hopelessly muddled view of the events from inside Rachel’s head. Well done.


Sam Belaqua said...

Yeah. The NYT Sunday Book Review didn't much care for this one.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I'll have to track that down, thank you. I thought Pop Culture Nerd and I were alone on "Didn't Adore TGOTT Island." Will you read it?

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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