Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is my current gold standard for psychological thriller; Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (obviously titled to echo its progenitor) doesn’t come close to earning the comparison, which hasn’t stopped other critics. Hawkins tries to up the ante by using three unreliable narrators, but her time-jumps are just lazy construction compared to Flynn’s aha! revelations.
Rachel is an alcoholic, unemployed divorcée. She takes a daily commuter train to disguise her unemployment from her roommate/landlord. The train passes Rachel’s old neighborhood, where she can see not only her old house, where her ex-husband started a family with his mistress, but another house occupied by a young couple to whom Rachel ascribes romantic fantasies. One day, she sees the young woman with another man, and then the young woman goes missing (yeah, she’s Gone Girl.)
Soon, we get that young woman’s point-of-view, as the narrative rewinds a year. Megan is dissatisfied with her idyllic life, which she is certain she doesn’t deserve. She becomes a nanny for Rachel’s ex-, but quits because she can’t stand being around the child. A Horrible Secret is intimated. Soon there’s more Rachel (yawn), then a third voice, mistress Anna. The voices of these women are barely distinguishable – all are secretly self-pitying messes, despite how they appear to others. Their observations about life aren’t particularly incisive, the way Gillian Flynn and the best novelists are. It’s difficult to turn Hawkins’ pages, even more difficult to pick up her book when it’s been down a while.
If Hawkins has crafted three similar female protagonists, her male characters are even more generic. In order to maintain suspense that anyone could have “abducted/killed” Megan, each man is given motive and character traits that point to violence; at suitable moments the guys shift to deodorant-ad mode, so we’ll understand why women fall for them. And fall they do – The Girl on the Train is an English drawing-room farce-cum-thriller, where the pairings are illogical but inevitable. The finale is ridiculous and underwhelming, although I was relived the whole mess was over.
Of course, The Girl on the Train is selling like gangbusters, and has been optioned as a movie. It reads like a movie treatment already, without any joy of language. And it may yet become a good movie – I’d like to see three creative actresses develop these characters beyond what Hawkins could. The plot needs to be reworked, particularly the dreadful resolution – it’s barely recycled from any number of Hollywood shock endings, from Fatal Attraction to Basic Instinct. One Internet commenter wondered if Rachel was looking out the Rear Window of the train; that single comment is more creative (and suggestive) than Paula Hawkins managed in 300+ pages.