The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is an innocuous and plain potboiler. Promoted as a psychological thriller, it’s better described as light feminist fiction. It zips along like a good train ride.
Told in revolving voices by three women—conservative Anna, troubled Megan and the main character, alcoholic Rachel—the London-based novel pairs these salty ladies with different men at varying places and times, all of which ultimately converge.
Rachel moves the plot. Her messy affairs and wince-inducing choices hinge on enticing details. The poor woman (she’s a grown woman, not a girl) is obviously spiraling into despair while flailing to somehow stop herself, which makes her Rear Window-like observations and reckless exploits strangely absorbing. Don’t mind the underpinnings too closely, because the whole conflict and resolution are more than a tad flat; read for psychological musings but keep reading for humor amid the murderous mystery.
It’s not that the psychology is bad. Some of the best ideas for treatment are delivered by a delicately featured man who may be an Islamic psychologist who is also a suspect in whatever crime this woozy, nosy eyewitness may have seen from the train or its nearby underpassages. But women in The Girl on the Train are shallow by any stretch, which makes it easier for Hawkins to portray them as victims. That the women also victimize, imprison and impair themselves is a key theme, with clever diversions and sidetracks such as the doting kindness of Cathy the landlord, and the ladies’ self-talk in introspective log entries keeps thought and action balanced, enveloping and involving.
Each tale involves the woman, her deepest desire for a man, and, centrally, her burgeoning awareness of herself as a whole woman, including the ability to bear a child. This is a particular aspect which grants The Girl on the Train momentum toward a heart-pounding climax. As Rachel strains to clear her blurry vision and achieve clarity while serving as an amateur, unemployed sleuth (with a thing for gin and tonics), her ex-husband Tom, a muscular Mr. Right and a red-haired stranger on—or is it off?—the train come into focus with sudden and blaring urgency. Beware of men, Hawkins warns the reader, including the cop that never shows up, and be kinder to women. The Girl on the Train does not get deeper than that and it’s not hard to guess what happens. But this bestselling book about a humorously self-inflicted journey into darkness moves at a steady, sobering pace.