Okay, wow. This time I thought I’d pay attention to the best-seller hype (after my little incident where I didn’t read Gone Girl for an embarrassingly long amount of time), so when I was given a gift voucher I treated myself to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.
Yes, that book everybody is talking about.
But let me assure you, there’s a very good reason everybody is talking about it. I bought it on Saturday and finished it in what basically amounted to three sittings. 5 hours. I devoured it. So what was it that made this book so enjoyable? And was there anything about it that I didn’t like?
(Please be aware, this review is very mildly spoilerific. I won’t ruin the ending for you, but if you haven’t read any of the book at all you might lose some of the feeling of ‘I have no idea what sort of book this is going to be’ by reading this review first)
Author: Paula Hawkins
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Doubleday (15 Jan. 2015)
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost. And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
What I liked:
Yes, that one again. I know I harp on about characters a lot, but they really are important. This novel is narrated by three different characters, with Rachel being the primary narrator and other sections narrated by Megan (or the ‘Jess’ that Rachel sees from the train) and Anna (Rachel’s ex-husband Tom’s new wife).
None of these characters are very likeable. They are all completely flawed, do stupid, stupid things, but – with the exception of Anna – I didn’t care.
Rachel is a drunk, a crippling alcoholic who cannot go a day without a drink, and she makes some very painful decisions. But you know what’s important? I cared. About her. About her decisions. Every time she went to the off-license for more booze? I cringed. It physically made me feel uncomfortable. Something about the depth of soul we get in tGotT makes Rachel very real to us; we care about her and we don’t want her to suffer through the shittiness of her life any longer. Rachel is just trying to do what is right, and unfortunately that just seems to make things worse. Perhaps, then, this is why she struck a chord with me. I sometimes feel that way about my attempts at ‘helping’.
Megan is interesting, because I started off caring very little about her. She was simultaneously stubborn and flighty – and very deceitful. Yet by the end of the novel, I was completely heartbroken for her. For everything she had suffered through. And I felt bad that she had made such terrible mistakes. She is a pretty bad person, but she is also human, and she acknowledges her mistakes.
Anna? Well, Anna is a bit more complex. I still don’t like Anna. Not really. But I think, somehow, that I respect her. Which is weird, given the fact that she is probably the worst person I’d ever meet – and she has none of the sadness in her history that Megan has. But Anna still has a difficult choice to make, and I commend her for making it.
2. The Atmosphere
One of the things I loved best about this novel was the atmosphere. The world that Hawkins has created felt very real to me, from the little row of terrace houses right down to the off-license on the corner. Hawkins’ descriptions are insightful, invisible almost in the images they craft in my mind; I was reading, but it felt more like living. Everything was very vivid and I just read and read and didn’t want to stop. At the end of the novel I felt bereft. I had what I can only say was a “book hangover”. I went to bed feeling sad, and woke up feeling worse – not because it was a bad ending, or because I didn’t enjoy reaching the end, but because now it has ended and I can’t read it any more.
3. Suburban claustrophobia
I’m trying to be clever now. But in all honesty, I think ‘suburban claustrophobia’ is the best way to describe what this book made me feel. I’ve lived in the suburbs virtually my whole life. You see the same people every day – and some of these people you don’t like. And the worst part is, you can’t escape them.
I know a lot of the more negative reviews for this book have stemmed from the predictability of the novel, as people feel that the events are too convenient and fall into place too easily. But for anybody who picked this as a reason to actively dislike the book, I’d have to ask if they had ever lived in suburbia. This stuff does happen. I mean, not to quite the same brutal extent, but still. You bump into people you don’t want to see, but you go back there anyway; you can’t escape and it is stifling.
The novel is set in the height of the English summer. Warm – warmer than we’re used to anyway – and when paired with summer storms you have the perfect pathetic fallacy recipe. Anyway, I’m rambling, but basically I thought Hawkins’ did a very good job at capturing how it feels to be trapped. And that was good.
So what didn’t I like so much?
So when it comes down to it, I don’t have a lot of negative stuff to say about this book. I read it very quickly, never once felt bored or cheated or like I was wasting my time. And I was sad when it was over. However, I will say that to me the ending of this novel was not a surprise. I guessed from about a third of the way through what was probably going to happen – and I was right. When you have such a limited cast of characters, it can sometimes be easy to figure out who is guilty and who is not.
But as I said when I read Gone Girl, for me the mark of a good book is the fact that I say, “So what? I figured it out. But who cares?” Part of the fun is being right, and being able to watch the narrative unfold and you’re sitting there going, “Yes, yes, exactly what I thought.” So for me this wasn’t as huge a turn-off as it was for other reviewers.
Still, I wouldn’t expect to read the novel and be completely surprised. Then you’re likely to be disappointed.
Let me know if you’ve read it as well! I’d love to talk to somebody else who has.