Book Review: The Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books (Penguin Group), 2015
The whole inbred train-based sub-genre of crime fiction was already old when Agatha Christie, in search of a new gimmick but as always incapable of actual innovation of any kind, wrote her 1957 novel 4.50 from Paddington, and the fact that the apparatus still has some wheezing energy left in it is amply demonstrated by the success of Paula Hawkins’ debut novel The Girl on the Train, which is currently sitting on the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
The bulk of the book’s action centers around a schlubby, unhappy woman named Rachel who rides the commuter train from Ashbury (“a 1960s new town, spreading like a tumour over the heart of Buckinghamshire”) to London and back every day. Some sort of signal problem on the line causes the train to pause for a bit at the same junction every time, and since Rachel always sits in the same section of same car, she has an unobstructed view of neat little house occupied by an attractive young couple she’s dubbed Jess and Jason. Rachel has imagined an entire life for this couple, and she hasn’t just done this out of boredom; no, she’s also done it in a frantic attempt to avoid thinking about the house four doors down from Jess and Jason:
I can’t look at it now. This was my first home. Not my parents’ place, not a flatshare with other students, my first home. I can’t bear to look at it. Well, I can, I do, I want to, I don’t want to, I try not to. Every day I tell myself not to look, and every day I look. I can’t help myself, even though there is nothing I want to see there, even though anything I do see will hurt me.
Rachel, who lives as the more-or-less permanent house guest of a distant acquaintance, has never recovered from the divorce from her husband and the loss of the life she used to lead in that house by the railroad tracks. She’s become a blackout alcoholic (prone to drunk-calling her ex-husband and even wandering around his neighborhood at night), a morose introvert, acutely self-conscious of the wreck she must now seem to others:
I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I’m off-putting in some way. It’s not just that I’ve put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me, can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.
When Rachel one day sees Jess kissing a man who’s not Jason, and when Jess then disappears, the plot of Hawkins’ novel lurches into motion much like an old commuter train. Rachel quickly becomes a “person of interest” for the police investigating the disappearance of Jess (whose real name is Megan), and since Rachel can no more account for herself than she can account for anything else, a classic underdog-vs.-investigative procedure story takes shape.
Classic and intensely boring. The cascade of coincidences that starts the whole derivative mess of this novel going is matched by the further coincidences and cliches that keep it going, and Inspector Clouseau could correctly anticipate the novel’s one-two “surprise” climax. Hawkins’ efforts here will draw multiple and inevitable comparisons with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (this book will certainly likewise be filmed, and it’s possible Patricia Arquette will win another Oscar for a performance as Rachel that somebody at the Times will call “brave”), and as the above excerpts indicate, these comparisons will be apt: both books contain reams of flat, affectless, almost juvenile prose (in which “I can, I do, I want to, I don’t want to” is considered penetrating), both feature characters designed not so much to be flawed as to make their readers feel less flawed, both pile one howlingly unbelievable contrivance on top of another, and, depressingly, both refer to grown women as “girls.” There’s a doctoral thesis just waiting to be written on precisely what kind of sickly post-feminist demi-urges are being exorcised in this kind of book, and as tedious as that doctoral thesis would be, it can’t be as bad as the books themselves.