The Girl on the Train was published in early 2015, the third novel by Paula Hawkins, who at the time was a relatively unknown British author. In the UK, it promptly broke the record for largest number of weeks at the top spot on the hardcover fiction sales list. In the US, it debuted atop the New York Times fiction bestsellers list, and remained there for 13 weeks, returning the next year to the top spot for several more weeks. To date, it has sold more than 11 million copies worldwide, and it’s been translated into dozens of languages. Additionally, as I’m sure everyone who watches TV or sees billboards knows by now, it’s been made into a film, released just last week, which is certain to drive its sales numbers even higher.
So, admittedly, this review is probably quite pointless, as it seems just about everyone has already read it, so I’ll keep this brief. It’s the story of a woman, Rachel, who’s suffering from an increasingly perilous relationship with alcohol. Her marriage has fallen apart and she now rents a room in a flat with an old friend, and she’s recently lost her job. Embarrassed to let on that her life is falling to pieces, she still hops on the commuter rail every morning and rides into London before heading back home each evening, pretending to her friend that she’s still gainfully employed, while really she’s just sitting in a park drinking canned gin-and-tonics. This is all further complicated by the fact that the elevated train she rides every day passes right by the street where she and her ex-husband used to live, where he now lives with his new wife and daughter, and provides her with a view twice a day into their backyard, and the yards of all their neighbors. And one particular couple, living down the street, becomes a particular focus of her interest and attention in ways that become increasingly complicated, and which she complicates even further by inserting herself into the domestic scenes on this street where she used to live.
Now, the narration is done in first person from, for the most part, Rachel, but also some chapters from the first-person perspective of Anna (her ex-husband’s new wife) and Megan (another woman who lives down the street). All of this is made even more interesting by the fact that our principal protagonist is clearly quite a drunk, and she suffers from more-than-occasional blackouts, waking up in the morning, and only having small fragmentary memories of the night before. It makes for a very interesting literary technique: a story narrated largely by a voice that we readers can’t entirely trust, for even she’s not always sure what exactly happened.
Now, I should mention that The Girl on the Train is a ton of fun. It’s not a mistake that its sold so many copies; it’s terribly, wildly fun and suspenseful. Once you crack it open, you’ll finish it in a matter of days, and, mainstream or not, I’ll commend Hawkins for this: she has meticulously constructed a very clever and interesting book that is resonating with folks all over the planet. As I read it, I found the fact that I was enjoying it so much to be something of a guilty pleasure. But the key thing about a guilty pleasure is that it’s a pleasure.