I’m adjusting my series known as “One-Minute Book Reviews.” Instead of five reviews in a post, there will be a separate post for each book. The previous version meant posts about once per month. Now there will be approximately three or four per month, each featuring one book instead of five crammed together. Is that a problem?
The Girl on the Train – psychological thriller
Paula Hawkins – 2015
Recommended with slight caution
I don’t recall how I stumbled across this book, but I do recall a great number of positive and negative reviews. It was both praised and criticized for its unusual narration and fast pace, but it was also criticized for running out of steam with a lackluster ending. Although the narration was very annoying, the ending was worth the trouble.
Rachel Watson is recently divorced and a hot mess. She seems obsessed with her ex-husband, his new wife, their child, and the promising life that was stolen from her. Stolen, or maybe pushed aside due to a problem with alcohol and personal neglect. It depends on who you believe, thanks to an occasionally unreliable 1st-person narrator.
That’s where the annoyance stems – there are three 1st-person narrators. In addition to Rachel, we have Anna, the second wife to ex-husband Tom, and we have Megan, an unhappily married and troubled woman who lives on the same street where Rachel had lived and where Tom and Anna and child continue to live. As if 1st-person narration in present tense isn’t bad enough, we get the fun of three different narrators. But wait, there’s more! The story not only jumps around among three narrators but also jumps around forward and backward and forward again in time shifts. I was close to bailing on that alone, but the book’s popularity caused me to hang in there just in case. I’m glad I did.
Early on we learn that Megan is dead. Murdered. Rachel had been commuting by train to London on a line that allowed her to see her former residence and neighboring ones from behind the homes. One day, she notices Anna having morning coffee with a man other than her husband. Not long after, Anna is missing, then found dead. Though Rachel is certain she has information to help the investigation, her bouts with alcohol cause others to discount her as a witness.
The Girl on the Train is basically a “whodunit,” but an entertaining one. You get Rachel’s alcoholic blackouts, her Tom’s frustrations and sympathies for her downward spiral, Anna’s snooty condescension for having won/stolen Rachel’s prize, and Megan’s search for happiness through her own indiscretions and therapy sessions. All of these combine and lead to an eventual and surprising revelation of the murderer and motive, which were both under my nose but well hidden the whole time.
At times, The Girl on the Train seems part murder mystery, part intervention, and part soap opera. I won’t deny the lack of technical merit. As with most present-tense stories, there are too many tense slips. You can’t have present tense from the future and past. You can’t have flashbacks also told in past tense because we would/should have been there when it actually happened, which means it should have been chronologically told in present tense at that moment. It’s an unfair way to hide facts in order to reveal them at a more convenient time, and I don’t like it. But…
As the story approached the revelation, everything fell together well. It was like struggling with 90% of a puzzle until finally starting to see where the pieces are going. By then, I was already rolling downhill and didn’t want to hit the brakes. I don’t know if the comparisons to Gone Girl are fair or accurate, but I also don’t care.
I hated the time shifts, but I know they were necessary because how else can we hear from the dead woman? Oh, maybe by a straight, third person and past tense? I guess that’s nothing readers are looking for that these days. They just want a good book that keeps your attention. If that’s the case, then try The Girl on the Train.