The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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Have you ever wondered what other couple’s lives are really like behind closed doors? Do the people you pass every day going to work seem happier than you are? Does “happily ever after” even exist? All of these questions run though the mind of protagonist Rachel Watson, a divorced 30-something drinker who views everyone else’s lives through the lens of an empty wine bottle. Perky and attractive Anna, married to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom, is also one of the story’s narrators. Through her new-mom eyes, we learn that nothing is as it seems in suburbia. Finally, there is Megan Hipwell, blonde, artsy, mentally fragile, with a mysterious past and married to Scott, who loves her almost as much as he mistrusts her.

Every day, Rachel takes the commuter train that passes through a neighborhood of middle-class, cozy homes, where she spots Megan and Scott living the perfect life, or so it seems. She envies them their white-picket-fence existence, which mirrors the life she had until recently. Then, one day while riding the train, Rachel passes by their house and sees something that shocks her. Shortly afterward, Megan goes missing, and Rachel feels compelled to go to the police to give them information. But instead the police paint a picture of Rachel as an unreliable witness due to her drinking binges.

Author Paula Hawkins’ prose moves the reader with its poignant, often gut-wrenching honesty. She gives the audience insight into the female characters’ minds and hearts. “Maybe it was then. Maybe that was the moment when things started to go wrong, the moment when I imagined us no longer a couple, but a family; and after that, once I had that picture in my head, just the two of us could never be enough. Was it then that Tom started to look at me differently, his disappointment mirroring my own?” laments Rachel as she delves into when her life took a wrong turn. Her descent into drinking is described in painful detail; Rachel’s life has become a train wreck.

Entwined with Rachel because of Tom and living just a few doors down from Megan, Anna is the wild card in this novel about three very different British women whose lives intersect due to circumstances. Anna’s loathing for Rachel is evident from the start but changes by the end of the book. “We are happy. We had lunch and lay out on the lawn, and then when it got too hot we came inside and ate ice cream while Tom watched the Grand Prix…When I look at Tom, I thank God that he found me, too, that I was there to rescue him from that woman. She’d have driven him mad in the end, I really think that–she’d have ground him down, she’d have made him into something he’s not.” Anna was “the other woman” in Tom’s first marriage to Rachel, but now, as a new stay-at-home mother, she sees life differently.

Petite, pretty and unstable, Megan is the perfect victim. In the prologue, which is just one cryptic paragraph that at first seems to have no connection to the rest of the book, we are introduced to this sad, conflicted character. In addition to living nearby, she actually babysat for Anna and Tom’s daughter. Megan enjoys having power over men, from her doting husband to her secret lover to her soothing shrink, Dr. Kamal Abdic. Her life is riddled with secrets; the biggest one will leave the reader breathless. She is a restless soul, troubled by her past. In the end, Megan’s past catches up to her, and because she never resolved earlier issues it contributes to her unexpected demise.

In sharp contrast to the female characters, the three men in this novel seem to serve a quiet background purpose in the plot. As with best-selling British author Agatha Christie’s mysteries, these minor characters take on top billing by the time this book wraps up. Scott is loving but controlling, and of course when someone dies the police always suspect the husband. But don’t discount therapist Kamal, who appears both dangerous and dashing. Then there’s Tom, the understanding, patient husband to both Anna and Rachel. Add to the mix the element of the unknown–Megan’s mysterious man–whose identity remains hidden until the very end.

Told through the first person perspective and utilizing the flashback technique, this thriller leaves the reader wondering about Megan’s past and what really happened to her throughout most of the book. Paula Hawkins, a former journalist, spins a tale so true, with flawed, complex characters, that the book is a believable page turner. No one–not even Rachel and Anna–is above suspicion in this intense whodunit. The conclusion leaves the reader surprised and plants a seed of doubt about our most intimate relationships, especially those between husbands and wives. HLM