Tuesday, 4 October 2016

#CBR8 Book 108: "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Rachel, trying to drown the sorrows of her recent divorce in alcohol and denial travels to London on the train every morning and back to the suburb where she shares a flat with an old friend in the evenings. As she passes the area where she used to live, she observes a seemingly golden couple and makes up a fantasy narrative about their life to comfort herself in her loneliness. She's named them Jess and Jason and believes them to have a perfect relationship, in contrast to her miserable life, post failed-marriage.

One day, she sees "Jess" kissing a man who is most certainly not "Jason" in the garden, and this causes Rachel to have a minor breakdown. Waking up after a particularly epic drinking binge, she has a cut on her head, several bruises and absolutely no memory of what happened, but she believes it may have involved her old street, and possibly seeking out her ex-husband. She also discovers from the news that Megan Hipwell, as "Jess" is really called, has disappeared.

Rachel knows (as everyone else) that the husband is always one of the main suspects in disappearance cases. She believes very strongly that "Jason", in reality Scott Hipwell, couldn't have hurt his wife. She's determined to notify the police about the strange man that she saw Megan with from the train. Due to her habitual drunkenness, Rachel's not really treated as a reliable witness by the police, further hampered by the harassment complaints made about her by her ex-husband's new girlfriend. Because she knows the police aren't taking her seriously, Rachel feels compelled to contact Scott as well, pretending to be a friend of Megan's. She needs him to know about the man Megan was seeing.

As she keeps returning to the area where she used to live, where Megan disappeared from, Rachel struggles to remember what happened to her on the night she has completely blacked out. She knows she was in the area the same night that Megan left her home - could she have seen or heard something that could help the case?

The Girl on the Train came out in early 2015 and has been reviewed a lot of times on the Cannonball Read already. I've seen it compared to Gone Girl in the press (really not a fair comparison at all) and the movie version starring Emily Blunt as Rachel is about to be released in cinemas. I put it on my TBR list when it came out, and have kept putting it off for various reasons. Now that the movie is right around the corner, I figured I should read it, so movie reviews didn't spoil the book for me. I didn't know that much about the details of the book, and probably wouldn't have chosen to read about a fairly broken woman, struggling with alcoholism and reconciling herself to a divorce in part caused by her involuntary infertility struggles, when I myself am trying to get over my own very recent failure at yet another IVF attempt. I had figured a mystery suspense novel would be a good break from the romances I normally read, where quite a lot of the books end with pregnancy and the heroines always seem to be frustratingly fertile. So this book, not the best choice to read right now.

I can only assume that The Girl on the Train has been frequently compared to Gone Girl because they both feature quite unlikable female protagonists, there is a disappearance in both books, suspense/mystery novels written by women. There are also unreliable narrators in each of the books, but having read both novels, the similarities are superficial at most, and when you get down to it, they are very different books within a genre. I'm not going to go into other ways in which they are different, as that would spoil the reading experience.

Much of the book is told from Rachel's POV, but due to her drinking, we cannot entirely trust her memories or narration. There are also sections from Megan's POV, which start more than a year before she goes missing. It gives the reader insight into her actual life, which is a lot less idyllic than Rachel's fantasy narrative. There are also some chapters from the POV of Rachel's rival, Anna, the woman her husband had an affair with, who now lives in her former house, with Rachel's ex-husband, raising their baby girl.

Rachel used to work in marketing, but lost her job after turning up to work drunk. She still goes back and forth into the city, so as to not alert her flat mate to the fact that she's unemployed. She's suffered drunken blackouts more than once, and while her ex-husband's cheating contributed to the dissolution of the marriage, Rachel's depression and increased drunkenness after the failed fertility treatments caused her to act violently and erratically and their marriage had no hopes of surviving. Rachel is still a bit obsessed with her ex-husband and the reason Anna reported her to the police is because she once showed up at their home and snatched up their baby while Anna was napping. In fact, after this episode, that increased Anna's anxiety about Rachel (who keeps calling and occasionally shows up to talk to her ex, Tom), was the reason she hired Megan as a babysitter for a time, although Megan quit from boredom after only a few weeks.

While the book is a bit slow to start (and I really didn't enjoy spending so much time in Rachel's drunken, self-pitying head), it builds the suspense nicely and gets more exciting as the story unfolds. I figured out the identity of the killer (this is not a spoiler, it's obvious from the very first page that Megan ends up dead) some time before it was revealed, but that may very well have been intentional. It certainly adds more to the tension when the reader knows more than the characters in the book, and just waits for them to catch up. The book didn't entirely work for me (but again, that could have been because it further exacerbated the pain of my own recent failure to conceive a child), and I found it a bit confusing in places. Nonetheless, I can see why the book has become so popular and I'm sure the movie will be entertaining.

Judging a book by its cover: As far as I can tell, the version I read, has the movie tie-in cover, which means it just features the movie poster on the front. A train in the background with one lit-up window, speed lines illustrating the speed of the moving train. Slight blurring of the font and the movie tag line underneath. I don't really care for tie-in covers, but it was what I got. I don't think this poster is what's going to sell the movie.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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