Months ago, I entered a contest to be able to preview The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I didn’t win so I had to wait until it was officially released… and then I forgot about it until it began hitting all kinds of Must Read lists. I had to wait for many weeks on the wait list at the library but it’s not like I didn’t have plenty to read in the meantime. I was surprised by how much this book reminded me of Gone Girl – not in the plot exactly, but in the general feel of the book.
Rachel Watson rides the train to and from London every day to keep up appearances since losing her job because of her drinking. The other reason for riding the rails daily is the glimpses she gets through the window – the train always pauses right behind the house where she lived with her now ex-husband, Tom (the house he now shares with the woman he left Rachel for, Anna, and their infant daughter). A few doors down from her old house, Rachel watches the idyllic life of a couple she’s dubbed Jess and Jason – they have the life and marriage she thought she had with Tom. One Friday morning Rachel sees Jess in the arms of a man that is not Jason; a few days later it hits the news that the woman – named Megan, not Jess – has gone missing. Rachel is eager to assist in the investigation in any way she can but her personal issues leave the police with doubts as to Rachel’s reliability and motives.
Though Rachel is the main narrator, Megan (through flashbacks) and Anna are also given a voice. The way these three women view their interactions with one another is one of my favorite aspects of the book – and kept me going when I had a tough time getting into the story. Part of the difficulty came from so much of the beginning being in Rachel’s perspective. Her struggle with alcoholism is one that I have a difficult time reading; an alcoholic’s struggles are something I can sympathize with but not empathize with (a distinction I constantly need to look up to make sure I’m getting right). Seeing anyone struggle like that is agonizing for me – especially when they acknowledge how bad the problem is and that they’re doing something they know they shouldn’t or that they’ll regret. As the story progresses and Rachel finds things outside of herself to focus on, she is better able to conquer her personal demons – but with many frustrating slips along the way. Megan and Anna each grapple with their own issues – Megan along similarly self-destructive lines while Anna’s issues center more on the struggle to reconcile her identity as a mother with her identity as an individual, her longing for a life outside of her child with the resultant guilt.
The disappearance of Megan at the heart of the story is actually rather straightforward; what sets The Girl on the Train apart from other such books is the way Rachel speaks to the public’s interaction with such cases. She is familiar with Megan before Megan disappears but as she tries to interact with case at a deeper level, Rachel realizes she’d only familiar with “Jess,” the version of Megan she created and that the actual woman is truly a stranger to her. With the media coverage of tragedies and cases like Megan’s the general public only learns (and cares) about these victims after the fact and can never truly know them as people – they’re not around to defend or speak for themselves, correct misconceptions or explain why they did something. The lenses through which we view incidents – and how other people interpret and present events to us – are a fascinating and crucial aspect of Hawkins’ novel. So while I wasn’t overly impressed with the plot (I found it a bit melodramatic, like Gone Girl), its examination of perspective speaks to my personal interest in the concept.