Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Novel on the Rails

The bestseller Gone Girl whet appetites not only for the big screen adaptation that soon followed, but for more novels with similar elements: an unreliable narrator, marital strife, a flawed female lead, and crime. Coming along to fill that role is the new book The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

Alcoholic Rachel lost her London job months ago, but still rides the train in to "work" every day to deceive her overbearing roommate. At a particular point along the route, she stares longingly at the street where she used to live with her ex-husband -- specifically, at the house a few doors down, where a young couple is living what she imagines to be a perfect life. But when the woman goes missing the very night after Rachel spied her kissing a strange man, Rachel the voyeur becomes Rachel the investigator.

With so many similar elements, comparisons between The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl are inevitable. In truth, the comparison would be rather superficial; the two plots really have no more in common with each other than say, The Lord of the Rings does with A Song of Ice and Fire. Besides, for the most part, a comparison would just reflect unfavorably on the inferior The Girl on the Train.

Written in the first person from the perspectives of three different women, the novel does best with its main character, Rachel. She's a complete mess, at the mercy of gin-and-tonics and wine, and wallowing in self-pity over the life she still hasn't come to terms with losing. She's not "likeable" in any conventional sense, but she feels like a real person. But the novel's two other narrators, despite having very different personalities than Rachel, "speak" in an almost identical voice.

The Girl on the Train is more of a mystery than Gone Girl. Still, it isn't a particularly elaborate one. The story has a rather insufficient number of suspects to engender real uncertainty about events. There are at least enough plot twists along the way to keep the journey interesting, but the ultimate destination isn't particularly shocking.

It's a breezy enough read, if you're looking for something pulpy. But all told, an intriguing premise doesn't result in the most satisfying novel. I give The Girl on the Train a B-.

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