The Girl on the Train is the next Gone Girl



"Since her real life is so barren, Rachel has to live in fantasy."

"Since her real life is so barren, Rachel has to live in fantasy." Photo: Stocksy

"The Girl on the Train" has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since "Gone Girl," the book still entrenched on best-seller lists 2 1/2 years after publication because nothing better has come along. "The Girl on the Train" has "Gone Girl"-type fun with unreliable spouses, too. Its author, Paula Hawkins, isn't as clever or swift as Gillian Flynn, the author of "Gone Girl," but she's no slouch when it comes to trickery or malice. So "The Girl on the Train" is liable to draw a large, bedazzled readership too.

Hawkins' story has three women to narrate it. But Rachel, the main one, hits a new high in unreliability. For one thing, she's drunk throughout most of the story, so her memories are not to be trusted. Not even she is sure if what she remembers really happened. For another, her whole life has become a lie. Her boozy behavior has gotten her fired in London, but she still sticks to her old, rigid commuting schedule because she has nothing else to do. She is able to belt down multiple canned gin and tonics on each train ride.

And she is obsessed with Tom, the ex-husband who left her for a pliant blonde named Anna. Anna made a foxy mistress, but she's become much more stern as Tom's wife and the mother of their young daughter. She doesn't like to look out the window and see Rachel lurking. But Rachel lurks, phones, pesters and then the next day remembers none of what she did.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books) is out now.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books) is out now.

Since her real life is so barren, Rachel has to live in fantasy. And the house she used to share with Tom is on a street beside the railroad tracks. So when the train conveniently stops there every morning, Rachel sees an attractive, loving young couple who live on her old block. She nicknames them Jason and Jess, and she imagines they have the happy life that she herself has lost. Until the day she sees Jess, sans Jason, kissing another man.


Jess is actually Megan, the second of the women narrating "The Girl on the Train." She is, of course, nothing like the person Rachel chose to imagine. She's restless with Jason (real name: Scott) and having an affair with her therapist. She's a drifter who doesn't much like married life. And she doesn't really belong on this little suburban street; she used to work at an art gallery and when she lost that job she went totally adrift. Megan is bored, restless and unhappy until the day she disappears - never to be seen again.

When Megan's disappearance becomes a big tabloid story, Rachel feels that she ought to go to the police with everything she has observed about "Jess" from the train. Imagine how surprised and delighted the police are to meet a vague, drunken witness whose memories are hazy and barely credible. No one is willing to take Rachel seriously, but the events of the book make her more serious about trying to recover her clarity of mind. By this point, all the story's men are potential killers. And although Rachel and Anna, who is the third narrator, hate each other, they have something unwanted in common. Either may know enough about Megan (who worked as a baby sitter for Anna and Tom, and was terrible at it) to be a potential victim.

"The Girl on the Train" is full of back-stabbing, none of it literal. But Anna stole Rachel's husband and now gloats about it. Tiny, birdlike Megan has betrayed Scott, who is so much bigger than his wife that Rachel can't help noticing what frighteningly strong hands he has. And Rachel has lied her way into Scott's confidence by pretending to be a friend of Megan's from the art gallery, even though she never knew Megan. Because she's a lousy liar, Rachel doesn't even know if she can say that they met for coffee. She has no idea whether Megan was a coffee drinker.

Hawkins keeps all these fibs, threats and innuendoes swirling through her book, to the point where they frighten and undermine each of her characters. None of them really know which of the others can be trusted or believed. And although there's a lot of Hitchcock to the book's diabolical plotting, there's also a strong element of "Gaslight," the classic story in which a man tries to convince his wife that she is going mad. All three women in the book are candidates for this treatment, and Hawkins puts it to very good use.

The reader is ready for some gaslighting, too. So Hawkins scrambles the timing of scenes, with Megan gone in one chapter and then present in the next. She also shifts well among her narrators' points of view to keep the reader on edge, and only as the book progresses do these different perspectives begin to dovetail. Scrambling a story is easy, but it's done here to tight, suspenseful effect. The book does have a lot of moving parts, and Hawkins takes longer than necessary to get them started. The second part of the story is much tighter and more suspenseful.

One sign of this book's ingenuity is the way key details are effortlessly omitted. And you're not apt to miss them until the denouement, when it is pointed out that certain characters never appeared and supposed facts were never explained. Another appealing thing about the book is that while Hawkins' writing is more serviceable than stylish, she gives her thinly drawn women some brainpower. Rachel finds out about Tom's affair with Anna via email, of course. Horrified as she is, she can't help being amused that he has used the same line on Anna that he once used on her: "Don't expect me to be sane, I can't be, not with you." Or that he lifted it from Henry Miller.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books) is out now.