When a book like Gone Girl tears through book clubs and movie theaters, there will invariably be comparisons to books that have a similar tone or other similarities. The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins has been, and will continue to be, compared to Gillian Flynn’s best seller. Similarities abound: infertility, unreliable narrators, a tense puzzle where pieces shift together and apart as more information is revealed throughout the story.
A crucial difference in The Girl On the Train unfolds in the way Hawkins reveals the unreliability of her main narrator, Rachel Watson. Very early in the story, Watson’s shaky grasp on her own reality reveals itself, but she’s candid about her shortcomings. She says, “I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head.” The reader knows her accounting of events is suspect, and so does Rachel, and she is perfectly aware of the ways in which the people around her view her revelations about what she sees.
Rachel’s imagination — and desperate unhappiness with her own life — lead her to create a narrative for a couple she knows only from glimpses of them from her slow-moving commuter train. That the couple happens to live only a few houses from a house in which she used to live becomes integral to her story when the female half of the couple disappears.
Rachel’s actions, and her insistence on staying involved in the situation, is infuriating and understandable, given that she was dangerously close to the scene of the disappearance — and blindly, stupidly drunk, making her recollections of the night spotty and filled with frustrating black holes. While readers will wish her blackouts would include forgetting, deleting, or otherwise losing track of her ex-husband’s phone number, it’s fascinating to watch her stumble toward other connections — with tenuous sobriety, with a red-headed man from the train, with the husband of the missing woman.
The Girl On the Train isn’t a new release, and recommendations for it have been flying around for months now. I waited on the library wait list for some time, and I finished it in a breathless, page-turning session the same night I finally made it to the top of the waiting list. The book definitely keeps readers engaged and eager to see the story unfold. I can see why it’s been optioned for filming, because the tense moments and uncertain memories will make for an excellent film — hopefully.
One of the things I appreciate about the ending of Gone Girl is the way Flynn staunchly sees her characters and their motivations through to the end of the story. I know several — ok, a ton of — people who viscerally dislike the end of Flynn’s novel, but I believe she ended it in the only way that fit the characters she painted throughout her book.
I’m not sure I feel the same way about the end of The Girl On the Train, regarding the characters staying true to their motivation — though I guess part of reality is the way people often exact in a way that directly challenges everything you thought you knew about them. The twists and turns and the way the story unfolds allow the readers to understand which keys fit into which holes to unlock the story, so the ending has a sense of satisfaction not everyone felt when finishing Gone Girl.
I think The Girl On the Train is definitely worth the read, and I’d love to know what you thought of it.
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