Last summer I was taking the train from upstate New York into the city to see my brother and his fiance. Rolling through the Hudson Valley in August is a treat- the verdant hills and woods, the starkness of the cliffs against the blue sky. It’s one of the prettiest train rides there is, right alongside the river, and I spent most of the trip leaning against the window, watching it all roll by. As you get closer in to the city, Westchester County in particular, you see more homes, villages and eventually the suburbs transition to an urbanized atmosphere by the time you reach Yonkers. As you pass the homes, the apartments, the offices, you see people going about their lives- coming and going, working and playing and it’s easy to imagine what their lives must be like beyond what you see in the moment. Did the man in the suit who’s leaving the office just close a deal? Is he on his way home to surprise his wife early? Is he leaving to meet his mistress? Maybe just going out to lunch? Then you roll past and the moment is over and you don’t give it another thought.
That’s not the case for Rachel, the protagonist and primary narrator of “The Girl on the Train,” a novel by Paula Hawkins. Rachel commutes into London on a daily basis from its outer suburbs and so sees some of the same people every day for weeks and months, and so she develops her own narratives for them and they become, in a way, real-life imaginary friends. Until she sees something that shatters her fantasy.
From there the novel unfolds as a mystery/thriller, not unlike Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” as Rachel becomes involved with the lives of those whose lives she’s witnessed in small moments from the train. Like Flynn did with “Gone Girl,” Hawkins uses more than one narrator so as a reader, we see different perspectives on the events and, critically, that means that we cannot trust any of them as far as providing us with a reliable account of what has actually occurred. They are also not all presented in order, and so we jump back and forth over a period of about a year (though most of the action takes place over the summer of 2013). Each chapter and even sections within each chapter are clearly identified as to when they take place, but sometimes I needed to flip back a page or two to double check whenever a different narrator took over to make sure I had events lined up properly. The mystery at the heart of the story is good and Hawkins does a very nice job of taking the reader through each clue with a steady pacing so that there’s never really a point where the story feels like it’s jumping too fast or where I felt it plodded along slowly. I had it mostly figured out by the time of the big reveal, but it was handled well and still enjoyable.
The thing that I appreciated the most about the story was the character of Rachel. She is a flawed but realistic character, one that I’ve identified more with than maybe any in any book I’ve read in a long time. Rachel is a young (30-ish) professional with a serious drinking problem that makes her perhaps the most unreliable of the three narrators, though as the primary character, the one the reader must rely on the most. Hawkins has captured alcoholism in a way that I found myself nodding along to as I reflected on my own drinking habits, from the false compromises one makes to the seemingly uncontrollable need to put alcohol before almost anything else. Rachel’s struggle is both finding out the truth at the center of the plot while trying to manage her alcoholism, depression and financial situation. When she describes blackouts, I’ve been there. When she describes having to wake up and try and get through another day with a hangover, I’ve been there. Trying to hide your drinking from those you live with, hiding bottles, I’ve been there. And so I empathized with Rachel in a way that is deeply personal, and brought back memories of my own journey (as of this writing I have 362 days sober).
One of my own shortcomings as a reader is that I haven’t always made an effort to get outside of my comfort zone when it comes to what I read, in particular books written by women or with women as central characters. I grew up as a reader on Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy before falling hard for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wodehouse and others in the Highly Regarded White Men category. I also started reading a lot more non-fiction, and again, dominated by folks like Erik Larson, Christopher Hitchens, David McCullough, etc. This isn’t to say their work isn’t good or worthwhile, but if that’s all you read it’s incredibly limiting and eventually repetitive. So I’ve been trying to break out of that, specifically trying to read more books by people who don’t look like me or have the same kind of cultural background that I do. Recent efforts here include “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt; “In the Light of What We Know” by Zia Haider Rahman; “Zealot,” by Reza Aslan; “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn and now “The Girl on the Train.” The three central characters, Rachel, Anna and Megan, are all well developed and through the course of the novel all are revealed to have their virtues and their flaws, and the book certainly passes the Bechdel test. Even more minor characters like Cathy, Rachel’s roommate, feel as though they could exist with their own lives outside of the central story. In this regard, “The Girl on the Train” was terrific, and for something that I hope makes me more empathetic to the variety of experiences people have.
Overall, I definitely recommend “The Girl on the Train,” especially for the way Hawkins handles Rachel and her alcoholism. I think it’s reflective of the experience and if you have someone in your life or if you have struggled with alcohol, it will probably resonate strongly. The novel also deals with topics such as domestic violence, the struggle of moving on from a relationship and ultimately how much we know about our friends, our family and our neighbors.
Next up on my list is “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you have any recommendations or have read “The Girl on the Train” and want to weigh in, leave something in the comments (no spoilers)!