Familiar Stranger

Author: Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainYou’ve probably heard all the hype about how The Girl on the Train is the next Gone Girl. But I’m here to tell you, don’t believe it! (For one thing, Dark Places is technically the next Gone Girl, as the movie adaptation opens in France in April 2015.) The intriguing unreliable-narrator premise — involving a seemingly innocent bystander who entangles herself in a complex murder case — starts off strong, but soon gets as fatally compromised as the investigation. All aboard for this spoiler-free review!

Our “girl on the train” is Rachel, who commutes back and forth to London by train every day, and entertains herself on the long ride by watching the couple who live in one particular house. She’s nicknamed them Jason and Jess, and even invented little background stories about them based on her brief daily glimpses of their lives. By contrast, Rachel lives in a grudgingly rented room of an old schoolmate’s house, spiraling into alcoholism after the collapse of her marriage to Tom. Oh, and did I mention that Tom just so happens to live a few doors down from Jason and Jess?

One day, Rachel sees something she shouldn’t, something shocking: “Jess” (whose name is really Megan) kissing a man who is most definitely not Jason. When Jess/Megan goes missing soon afterward, Rachel feels she must call the police with what she’s seen, but due to certain acts of boozy harassment of her ex’s new wife, she’s not taken seriously. Unsatisfied, Rachel begins her own amateur sleuthing, but her new obsession — and her frequent alcoholic blackouts — lead her into danger. Can Rachel solve the mystery… and can we trust Rachel?

As a frequent public-transit user myself, I loved this premise, because it’s impossible to avoid overhearing little snippets of strangers’ lives on your commute, and it’s only natural to speculate about why someone looks so sad/angry/worried or where they’re going dressed like that. It’s a little harder to swallow that the characters in this story have as many connections (geographical and emotional) as they do, but okay, psychological thrillers need a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to get off the ground.

What’s more worrisome is how misogynistic and body-shaming the tone of this woman-authored novel is. Depressed and not taking care of herself, Rachel has gained weight since her divorce — and whenever her cruel ex-husband or other male characters aren’t sneering at her for it, Rachel is attacking herself with vicious, hateful self-contempt. The entire novel seems to have internalized a belief where women who are fat or unkempt or visibly distraught in public are shameful, disgusting, and deserve the negative treatment they (inevitably) receive from everyone. In the pursuit of creating an unreliable narrator, author Paula Hawkins seems to be inviting the reader, too, to cast a judgmental and scornful eye on her protagonist. Flawed characters are interesting and create depth, but I don’t see the point of the toxic fat-hatred that permeates this book. Why not just call it The Fat Sloppy Drunk that Everyone Despised and be done with it?

In the end, the revelation of what has really happened to “Jess” is less interesting than the complex bonds borne of crisis and the dangerous, ever-shifting balance of power in these artificially intense relationships. The Girl on the Train will likely appeal to fans of Gone Girl, but falls more on the side of needlessly hateful than bitingly satirical.

– Stephanie P.

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”1594633665″]
Stephanie Perry
Latest posts by Stephanie Perry (see all)