Hello, everyone! If you’re an avid reader, you’ve probably stumbled across the forked tongue beast of the book world: the overhyped novel. These books spread like wildfire across the nation, appearing on every book lover’s nightstand, even if it’s just to see what all the fuss is about. It’s the allure of the New York Times Best Sellers List that convinced me, two years after the initial publication, to give Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train a try. So what do you get when you combine “the next Gone Girl” with two years of expectation? A healthy dose of disappointment.
Synopsis: After an acrimonious divorce with her husband Tom, Rachel wallows in depression, binge drinking to blackouts and riding the train to London each day to keep up the appearance of a job. She becomes fascinated with Megan and Scott, a couple who live beside the train tracks, giving them fake names and fantasizing about their relationship. It’s only when Rachel sees the inkling of an affair, and then hears about Megan’s disappearance, that her fascination becomes an obsession. Convinced she can find the truth about Megan , Rachel throws herself into the case, crossing paths with her ex Tom, his new wife Anna, and Scott himself. The only problem: a blackout on the night Megan vanished, and a pressing doubt that the key to truth lies in her memories.
My take: The good thing about Hawkins’ novel was that it was a quick read. But it’s also unnecessarily cumbersome. The book is almost 400 pages, but has to balance 3 narrators and chapters sectioned with annoying time stamps. In the beginning everything we know from Rachel is in flashback, since her narration only takes place during her train rides. The timing becomes more flexible and more present-tense as the book unfolds, but I originally felt very disconnected from events and disinclined to care about Rachel’s actions.
The novel has a compelling concept and sketches thought-provoking themes, but is undermined by a weak mystery. The question central to the book concerns whether a person can every truly know another person, and this is answered deftly in one area of the book, but fails in the other. When it comes to Rachel and whether she truly knows herself and what she is capable of, the question draws to a thrilling climax, but when it comes to the main couple, Megan and Scott, it’s dead in the water from the beginning. Am I supposed to be surprised that Rachel’s understanding of Megan is completely off base? I should think not. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a first-grade lesson, not one that deserves the revelatory status its accorded in this novel.
Even if some of the questions asked by this book are worth the page count, the mystery is not. Central to a good mystery is the whodunnit. I guessed Hawkins’ whodunnit about halfway through the book, and here is why: Hawkins isn’t a good poker player. My first writing teacher told the class that if you know where the story is going, your reader will know too. That’s not to say that authors can’t know the ending of their story, but they should write well enough to keep that ending close to their chest, to keep it exciting and unknown to the readers. Hawkins sets up the the mystery of Megan’s disappearance by laying out all of the characters in advance, waiting for Rachel to figure it out, and hoping the reader doesn’t figure it out first. This isn’t an unusual style, but the problem is that there are 3 male characters in the book, and two very obvious red herrings. Hawkins could have spiced up the mystery by even allowing the possibility of a female attacker, but she doesn’t. And since mystery writers like to pick the character you’d least expect, the novel becomes less of a whodunnit and more of a iknowit.
Critics have praised the novel for featuring an unreliable, imperfect female protagonist. I agree that this is an important step in the mystery genre, especially since most of the crime novels I read have protagonists who are moody cops with drinking problems that seem to have no problems sweeping up gorgeous women by the handful and still having successful detective careers. Hawkins doesn’t try to paint Rachel as anything other than a mess. She’s not a good person or a bad person, just a human suffering from addiction and attempting to recover. The other characters in the novel are painted with far broader strokes, to poor results. Megan and Anna, the innocent and the whore, are both given narrative chapters that pretend to illuminate their character while really only showing them in relation to their husbands. While I admit that it’s a bold move for Hawkins to write a character who enjoys being the “other woman,” she doesn’t distinguish Anna as anything outside of that role. Megan, too, falls into cliche traps about the pretty naif who wants freedom and casual sex but is trapped in domesticity.
And then there are the menfolk. One’s a violent control freak, one a violent manipulator, and the other semi-violent and disingenuous. It’s The Girls all over again. I’m so tired of books that reduce men and women to complete stereotypes. No sex is entirely good or entirely evil. Why do books keep tripping over this? When it came to the actions of the killer, they were so contrived and outside the realm of believability that it made me lose faith in the entire story.
Final Consensus: Is it the next Gone Girl? It certainly imitates Gillian Flynn’s structure. But while I remember feeling a complete sense of complete shock and surprise while reading Gone Girl, I felt only mildly entertained while reading The Girl on the Train. Gone Girl kept me guessing until the very last page. TGOTT gave away its surprises on the halfway mark. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not a revelation either. And while both books have the word “girl” in them, only one deserves to be a bestseller.