The good and the bad of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Well, I enjoyed it very much. I’d been warned that it was tedious, and not as good as Gone Girl. But I haven’t read Gone Girl (yet), so I wouldn’t know. I read most of the book whilst sitting on a train, often looking out and imagining the houses, clearly picturing it as a film. I’m almost annoyed that the film version (starring Emily Blunt) will take place in upstate New York, and will not be a ‘village-on-the-edge-of-London’. But I guess that’s what happens when DreamWorks option your book before publication.
The story centres around a woman whose curiosity about a house she can see from her train carriage, a few doors down from where she used to live (and where her ex-husband now lives with his new wife/girlfriend and baby), leads her into a missing persons inquiry. It’s a world of ‘toddlers, mothers and au pairs’, and the ‘pilates girls’ with their ‘manicured hands wrapped around their Starbucks’. The street – ‘tree-lined and tidy, not quite a cul-de-sac’, its pavements ‘busy with mothers with dogs on leads and toddlers on scooters’.
The plot is at times absurd, yet still believeable enough. The train conveniently stopping outside her old street every morning or evening, as the main narrator ‘commutes’ to a job she’s actually been fired from, when she manages to witness a couple who are frequently out on their terrace. It’s part Hitchcock, and part ‘Woody Allen murder mystery’, where everyone bumps into one another, or where everyone already knows one another – with an underlying theme about a man trying to convince his wife that she is going mad. Or several identical men (I believe) trying to convince several identical women that they are going mad.
It kept me ‘page-turning’ mainly because of the present tense easy shifting between the narrators’ points of view – a device I like to read. But I also think that was the problem. The three neurotic female narrator ‘voices’ of Rachel, Megan and Anna all seemed too similar. Rachel’s alcohol-induced blackouts, whilst very convenient to the plot, became rather tedious and monotonous. In fact Rachel, unable to have kids and a troubled alcoholic, is drunk throughout most of the story, constantly bumping into things and falling over, and her memory is not great – which is the key to the whole story. Obsessed with her ex-husband, she phones, emails and pesters him, and then the next day remembers very little of it. She even writes herself that ‘bumping into people is all I seem to do in this neck of the woods.’ Constantly downing her Sauvignon Blanc from the off-licence or opening her cans of ready-mixed G&T on the train with a ‘joyful click, fizz’ – each train journey feels a bit like a Schweppes ad. Without giving the plot away, all three narrators seem to increasingly polish off the wine – and all seem able to crack their unreliable husbands’, boyfriends or exes’ email or laptop passwords, too … which brings me to my main criticism.
Because whilst the neurotic female narrators are too similar, I think the men are even more so. Other than Dr.Kamal Abdic, who has ‘dark honey skin’, Scott and Tom seem like identical nasty rugger-bugger types, with gym bags, iPod shuffles or ‘army buddies’. They seem to just sit around at their kitchen or dining-room tables, with their laptops open, ‘wearing shorts but no shirt’ and so the female narrators ‘can see the muscles moving under his skin when he moves’. Then when the women ‘run their fingertips over his shoulder’ … the men ‘jump, and snap shut the laptop’. In fact there are many laptops getting snapped shut in The Girl on the Train, before or after the women have cracked the passwords.
I got a bit tired of all the guys being constantly described by their hands, too – Scott, Tom, Dr.Abdic, Detective Inspector Gaskill, and even a poor ‘red-haired man’ on the train is summed up by the palm of his hand feeling ‘hard and calloused’. Each female voice seems to be obsessed about the hands of each man ‘wandering over them’ (is this the norm nowadays? Are women obsessed with hands?). Scott seems to have ‘frighteningly strong hands’. One female narrator enjoys being in the company of the detective with: ‘I liked watching his hands move’ because ‘he has large hands and long fingers with neatly manicured nails. No rings.’ Another narrator enjoys the doctor’s hands: ‘he has hands I could imagine on me, long and delicate fingers, I can almost feel them on my body’. When not ‘folded and motionless’, all these ‘warm hands and long fingers’ are either shuffling papers around on their desks … or snapping shut laptops, of course.
And then all the guys are also constantly thrusting (with their long fingers) cups of tea, coffee or glasses of wine into the hands of their poor wives, ex-wives, partners or visitors. Or coming up behind the women, putting their hands on their shoulders and squeezing them – precisely as the poor women are trying to open more bottles of wine. There are far too many hands ‘pressing gently on lower backs’, or ‘hands on my shoulders, warm and solid’, or ‘his grip tightens a little on my shoulders; he leans forward and kissed my neck’.
But, hey, I enjoyed the book immensely. Honestly. And I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s a great read. It’s certainly a ‘page-turner’. Read it whilst you’re on a train, with a ready-mixed can of G&T …