“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.”
Written by British author Paula Hawkins, and quickly becoming one of the fastest-selling novels in history after its release in January 2015, debuting at No. 1 on The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2015 list, The Girl On The Train is a psychological thriller that follows an alcohol divorcee, Rachel Watson, who takes the same train to work every single day. As Rachel passes by the same houses, she comes to recognise the people she sees and begins fantasising about the relationships and lives of those that reside there. One of these houses belongs to her ex-husband Tom, who now lives with Anna, who he cheated on Rachel with, and their baby daughter. A few doors down, Rachel spends most of her commute fantasising about the seemingly happy lives of Scott and Megan Hipwell. But everything changes when Rachel witnesses something from the train window and Megan is later found to be missing, presumed dead. Becoming entangled in a missing person’s investigation, Rachel’s involvement promises to send shockwaves throughout both her past and future.
This following post is a review of only the book. You can read my review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book here.
Told in a first-person narrative from the point of view of three women – Rachel, Anna and Megan – The Girl On The Train constantly shifts perspectives as well as between timescales, jumping from after the murder to weeks before, slowly revealing the truth about the lives of these three women and the connection that they each have.
Rachel is our main narrator but, an alcoholic prone to blackouts, she’s an unreliable source so we never know whether to believe her or not. A broken, self-pitying character, Rachel once had everything but has since lost her home, job, dream of motherhood, and her self-respect. She now relies on a can of gin and tonic or two on her way home from work and has become naive and insecure, holding on to the smallest glitches of attention and hope, as she lives in a world of fantasy to escape the harsh realities that face her.
There are times when we feel sorry for Rachel, but most of all we spend our time trying to work out her motives for getting involved in this murder mystery. At first, we enjoy going along with her narrative and amateur detective hunt for the facts, but it doesn’t take long for us to doubt her, too. She has a vendetta against Anna, a hatred against Megan, once she finds out more about her, an irrational lust for Scott, and an apparent desire for Tom back in her life.
For much of the book she’s painted as the antagonist, as every other character believes her to be but, at the same time, we see her as a weak woman, struggling to get a grip on reality, merely trying to find out the truth so that she can achieve something good and worthwhile in her life.
Just like Rachel, each of the book’s characters tie themselves into the story as possible suspects, as villains as well as heroes, with their human flaws and their overbearing baggage turning innocence into deceit, charm into manipulation, but also self-pity into courage, and weakness into strength.
Megan is beautiful and young, but whilst she appears perfect from Rachel’s point of view, she’s not as innocent as she appears. Megan has had a hard life from the beginning and acts out, using her sexuality, to make herself forget about her troubling past, whilst Anna, the complete opposite of these two women, uses her confidence as her weapon. The strongest character of the three, Anna maintains her self-assurance in herself and as a woman but she still has her insecurities, as her gloatfullness means that she’s also ignorant and easily downtrodden because of this.
But whilst these three characters are all so different, there’s a little part of each of these women in all of us, and that’s one of the biggest reasons why this book has gripped the nation. Written by a woman, as well, Hawkins has crafted characters with an incredible depth to them, but she doesn’t paint men in a better light, either.
Tom, Scott, and Abdic each have their downfalls, too. They’re liars, brutes, and happy to do as they please without fear of the consequences. It does appear at times that these male characters don’t have any good qualities and that women are full weaknesses, but Hawkins makes her book so personal that you’ll relate to each of these characters, nonetheless.
An excellent character study, The Girl On The Train is also a gripping read, making it undoubtedly this year’s best thriller. Hawkins switches between characters and timescales at the perfect time, constantly leaving you on edge and with a tonne of questions unanswered, that even if you guess a few of the twists halfway through, there’s still plenty more to come.
But whilst The Girl On The Train slowly unravels and keeps you guessing until the end, it does have a slightly disappointing climax. More time could have been spent with Anna and Rachel fighting out their differences, Rachel could have come to some neutral ground with Scott after so much time is spent building up their relationship, and it could have also delved deeper into Abdic’s motives and explored how he felt about Megan towards the end.
Although critics seem to love making the comparison between The Girl On The Train and Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl, which was adapted by David Fincher in 2014, the only real similarity is that these are both dark thrillers with female leads, so the comparison is unnecessary. Thrillers are often led by strong female characters these days, take Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy or C.L. Taylor’s The Missing for a more recent example, so to link these two stories together merely because of a woman taking the lead is a waste of time.
Rachel and Gone Girl’s leading female, Amy, have completely different characteristics, their situations are very different, as is the murder investigation that follows. They may both be in messed up relationships, but we’ve all been there (maybe not to such an extreme, but you know). We’re not comparing this book to any male-led murder mysteries, so we should let The Girl On The Train stand out in its own right because it doesn’t need such comparisons to get any recognition; Hawkins excellent writing skills and character development do that all by themselves.
So if you’re into dark crime thrillers and mysteries around murder investigations, or if you’ve just had a terrible breakup and you want to vent some anger on how awful men/women can be, The Girl On The Train is the perfect book for you.
The Girl On The Train was adapted into a film in 2016, which you can read my Book vs. Film Review for here, and watch the trailer for below: