"They are a perfect, golden couple," Rachel Watson thinks, regarding handsome Jason and his striking wife, Jess. "He is dark-haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blond hair cropped short." Rachel, the main narrator of Paula Hawkins' novel The Girl on the Train, is obsessed with the pair; they represent to her the perfect relationship that she once had, or seemed to, before it imploded spectacularly.
She can't stop thinking about Jason and Jess, but she doesn't know them. She sees them through the windows of a train, one she takes each morning and evening on her commute to and from London. The couple, whose real names are Megan and Scott, live a few houses away from the one Rachel used to occupy, before her alcoholism poisoned her relationship. "They're a match, they're a set," Rachel reflects. "They're happy, I can tell. They're what I used to be, they're Tom and me five years ago. They're what I lost, they're everything I want to be."
When Megan goes missing, Rachel's world, already profoundly messy, shifts even farther off-center. Did Megan run away, or was she kidnapped? What about the man that Rachel saw kissing Megan one morning? Rachel finds herself unable to stay away, and winds up directly in the middle of the investigation, all while trying to deal with her growing addiction to alcohol and her frequent memory lapses.
It's difficult to say too much more about the plot of The Girl on the Train; like all thrillers, it's best for readers to dive in spoiler-free. This is Hawkins' first thriller — she's a journalist by training — but it doesn't read like the work of someone new to suspense. The novel is perfectly paced, from its arresting beginning to its twist ending; it's not an easy book to put down.
Even the most cleverly plotted thrillers don't work without compelling characters, but the people we meet in The Girl on the Train are drawn beautifully. The point of view alternates among three characters: luckless, obsessed Rachel; charming, complicated Megan; and Anna, the new love of Rachel's ex Tom.
Rachel is a wreck. She seeks solace in gin and wine, ignoring her roommate's pleas to get help. She turned to alcohol after she and Tom were unable to conceive a child via in vitro fertilization: "It was, as everyone had warned us it would be, unpleasant and unsuccessful. Nobody warned me it would break us. But it did. Or rather, it broke me, and then I broke us." After that, it didn't take long for her collapse to become complete and total. "I went from being a drinker to being a drunk," she admits, "and there's nothing more boring than that."
Megan's sections flash back in time to before her disappearance. She's manic and voluble, but hasn't quite come to terms with two extremely tragic events in her past. Anna, meanwhile, just wants a quiet, picket-fence kind of existence with Tom and their child. She's grown to hate Rachel, who's having a hard time leaving their family alone, calling Tom frequently during her numerous drunken spells.
Alternating points of view is a tricky prospect; it can easily come off as unnecessary or gimmicky. But Hawkins uses the technique masterfully, giving just enough away each chapter. None of the revelations in The Girl on the Train are tidy, and the picture gets much murkier before the mystery is resolved. Much of the complexity of the novel is due to Rachel, an exceptionally unreliable narrator with a tendency to pass out drunk, forgetting everything that happened the day before.
Hawkins' writing is excellent, and also cinematic, in the best possible way. Her novel doesn't read (as many thrillers do) like a screenplay that's been wrestled kicking and screaming into prose form. But the story, down to the title, is indisputably Hitchcockian, and in some scenes, Hawkins seems to be paying tribute to the director's imagery in films like Strangers on a Train and Rear Window. The ending plays out like a movie scene — perhaps a little too much like one, though it's easy to forgive a little melodrama when the prose that's led up to it is so solid.
But what really makes The Girl on the Train such a gripping novel is Hawkins' remarkable understanding of the limits of human knowledge, and the degree to which memory and imagination can become confused. Reflecting on her fellow passengers on her daily train ride to and from London, Rachel thinks, "I recognize them and they probably recognize me. I don't know whether they see me, though, for what I really am." They don't, of course, and they can't. It's hard enough — maybe impossible — for a person even to see herself for what she really is.