The Girl on the Train

Author: Paula Hawkins

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: February 2016


They kept saying it was the new Gone Girl, so what else is there to do? Read it and compare it to Gone Girl.

The story has its similarities, to be sure. Marital dysfunction is the primary driver. Multiple narrators keep the reader guessing. Things go from unsettling to pretty dark. It’s all a big whodunit wrapped in blood and lies.

The main difference would be the protagonist’s alcoholism. This adds a nice layer of reality to the character of Rachel. You’ve got to feel sorry for her—jobless, nearly friendless, and forced to pass her old London neighborhood on her daily train ride. She’s a voyeur who obsesses about her ex and his new wife, as well as a seemingly idyllic pair of neighbors. Because she can’t move on in life, she gets wrapped up in other people’s dark domestic dramas.

It’s a fine premise, but I can’t say the book held my attention very well. Billed as a page-turner, it became the opposite due to the three narrators feeling so same-y. Megan and Anna, though ostensibly unique, feel like they sprout from the same narrator. And that’s my main issue: one of narration, of point of view.

For better or worse, I subscribe to the David Morrell school of thought about first-person perspective. In Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, he lays down strict limitations: “Not many stories are suited to the first person. Form should follow function. Viewpoint should have something to do with the narrative’s theme.” That is, the first person angle can’t be “all surface.” It has to cover deeper layers.

Hawkins is half-justified in her approach. Her function is for Rachel to be a drunk who blacks out. So there’s some mystery to how the character recalls events, hence the form of first-person. But why are the other two characters written that way? One of them goes so far as to admit, on the topic of keeping a diary, “I could never write down the things I actually feel or think or do.” Yet this is exactly what the character is doing! It’s all there in the “I” statements.

One last critique before I let this book off the hook (and it’s a book plenty of people will enjoy, which is fantastic). The damn title. Okay, so we have this tiresome “girl” pattern in publishing, and that’s just something to live with until it fades away. I doubt authors have a whole lot of say when someone suggests this angle for marketing. But if this drudgery is necessary, at the very least is it too much to ask to have “girl” be accurate? A girl should be an actual girl. There are some who get it right (The Girl in the Road) and others who cause the cringe (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Guess which category this book falls into. She’s a woman on the train, people. It’s not that hard.

And… scene. Black me out.

5 thoughts on “The Girl on the Train

  1. Completely agree with you about the ‘girl’ title thing. The Swedish title for the Larsson novel translates as ‘Men Who Hate Women,’ much more accurate given the contents of the book! Also, a bitterly ironic comment on the translation and publishing industry that the English title suberverts this so depressingly.

    • That’s a good point. That Swedish title sure puts a twist on how the English marketing machine chose to translate it. (Even though the original title is a bit on the nose and just… not great. See my review for the final book in that trilogy.) But yeah, the whole “girl” pattern is just dumb.

  2. Agree with so many of your points! I didn’t think Gone Girl was as brilliant as people said, and The Girl on the Train was a bit of a let down for me. They’re both pretty ok books to read, just not great.

    • Thanks for commenting! It’s fun to read these popular books just to see what they’re all about, and at least when they are thrillers they tend to be easy reads. But still, there’s always something lacking. They’re just so twist-heavy, and when you’re done you feel like there wasn’t a lot of substance to take with you.

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