A Review of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train cover image

This review will be brief – I read a library copy almost two months ago, and I did take a few notes but not enough for a detailed review. But that’s OK, since this book was extremely popular and I’m sure there are many other reviews out there for you to choose from. The girl referenced in the title is Rachel; Rachel is a woman in crisis. She is a frighteningly severe alcoholic, and in the last year she has lost her husband (to divorce) and her job. She lives in a single room in her friend Cathy’s house, and she has not yet told Cathy that she lost her job, so she leaves in the morning at what used to be her usual time and then rides the train all day until it’s time to come home. There is a particular spot she is especially interested in passing on the train, and at the beginning of the novel all we know is that there is a couple whose house is near that spot whom Rachel likes to imagine as “the perfect couple.” She calls them Jason and Jess, and she has an elaborate fantasy life planned out in her imagination that is based on the little glimpses she sees of their lives, when they have cocktails on the porch in the evening or when she sees “Jason” leaving for work in the morning.

Jason and Jess are really Scott and Megan, and Megan is one of the novel’s three narrators. Rachel is another, and I’ll get to the third – Anna – in a moment. When we meet Megan, we don’t know that she is also “Jess” – that realization comes a few chapters later. We do get the sense that Megan is unmoored in some way; we know that she used to work in an art gallery but no longer does so, and we don’t know why, and we know that she recently quit a job as a childminder (that’s British English for babysitter; was I the only one who didn’t know that?) for a neighbor and is not willing to discuss her reasons for doing so. We know that her husband Scott loves her and tries to be patient, but that Megan’s unhappiness upsets him and that he sometimes storms out of the house angrily and displays his frustration in other ways which, while not abusive, are upsetting to Megan and cast doubt on their status as the perfect couple. But Rachel knows nothing of that.

Eventually it becomes clear that another reason Rachel likes to stop at this particular train stop is that she used to live on that street too. Furthermore, her ex-husband, Tom, still lives there with his new wife, Anna, and their baby. In addition, Tom and Anna’s baby is the one Megan cared for during her brief stint as a childminder. Once this connection becomes clear, this novel settles into the relatively-predictable-but-still-entertaining rhythm of the typical bestselling novel, in which we have a few pieces of the puzzle put together and our task as reader is to find the missing shards of grass, of sky, of character, of conflict, and so forth – in hopes of anticipating the novel’s resolution a moment or so before the author reveals it.

And then Megan is murdered. On the night that Megan was murdered, Rachel was walking around on their street, so drunk that in the morning the entire experience is blacked out, and when she is told by Tom that he interacted with her that night, she becomes obsessed with finding out what she had seen and experienced, convinced that her missing memory holds the answer to how Megan died. And – of course – it does, and her attempt to get her questions answered consumes the rest of the book.

This novel is engrossing, but it is also formulaic, and it never really transcends its formula. What I do find interesting, though, is that the novel seems to have a sociological point to make, which is that the loss of babies makes women crazy. With Anna and her new baby on daily parade and both Megan and Rachel increasingly miserable yet unable to stop watching Tom, Anna, and their baby, we gradually learn that an inability to have babies is areason for both Rachel’s alcoholism and depression and for Megan’s murder – and also that all three women in this novel have reasons to be obsessed with Tom. I’m not going to throw stones at anyone’s glass house when it comes to being upset about not having babies, but the reason I find this underlying message in the novel so interesting is that just a few months ago I read another novel – Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – that explores exactly the same idea. That novel is not formulaic and is much more literary in its approach, but both novels resolve themselves by letting the reader know that childlessness – in two very different circumstances – is a breeding ground for self-hatred and insanity. In both novels, the protagonists respond to the trauma of not being able to bear children by subconsciously shedding their identities. In Vida’s novel, the protagonist takes on an alternate identity when her ID is stolen and then gets a job as a body double for an actress, and in this novel Rachel’s alcoholism, divorce, and job loss effectively erase much of her sense of self. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of other novels that make this kind of statement, although crazy/manipulative/smothering mothers abound. I make this point not to expound a well-developed thesis, but I wonder if this is part of a trend in how (some) women see themselves and their roles as mothers in a world that we increasingly expect we should be able to manipulate and shape to our own specifications. I recommend the book only moderately, but I did enjoy contemplating some of the questions it asks.

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