As “The Girl on the Train” sits atop the U.S. bestseller list for the second week in a row, people are clamoring to figure out how it got there. The book’s title and jacket offer no clues; the blockish, white font and blurred foliage on the cover are appealingly generic, but don’t offer any hints at the breathless ride contained within the pages. First-time author Paula Hawkins doesn’t have as recognizable a name as the other tenants of the week’s bestseller list, including tenured thriller writers like James Patterson and David Baldacci. But the secret to the book’s success can be found in the plot summary on the inside cover: told from the point of view of multiple unreliable narrators — a seemingly-perfect wife gone inexplicably missing — the inscrutable husband is not who he appears to be — “The Girl on the Train” is shamelessly riding the coattails of “Gone Girl” ’s success.

The Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books
January 13, 2015

But “The Girl on the Train” transcends its apparent “Gone Girl” copycat status. Hawkins borrows plot and tone from film noir and classic British thrillers; her prose is more Hitchcockian than Flynn-ian. The book centers around Rachel Watson, an unemployed alcoholic who rides the train to “work” every morning, using the train’s stops as an opportunity to spy on the perfect, miniature lives she can see from the tracks. She’s created a fictional life in her mind for “Jason” and “Jess,” a handsome couple whose home is just a few doors down from where Rachel and her husband used to live. As she looks out her window, Rachel can forget that she’s a sad, unemployed drunk and play the anonymous spectator, soaking up the afterglow of other people’s happiness to get her through the hours between gin and tonics on the train. In an interesting twist on classic Hitchcock voyeurism, the woman has the power to look, and readers see everything from her point of view. Rachel is flawed, and seeing through her eyes is all the more interesting because of her foggy vision.

Yes, foggy vision. Since Rachel is an alcoholic, she’s prone to getting blackout drunk at the worst possible moments, like at the scene of major crimes and when she’s hanging out with the suspects of those crimes. Of course, Rachel can’t remember what happened when she left the train and stumbled around Witney the night “Jess” disappeared. And more generally, her way of dealing with the complication and confusion of leaving her voyeuristic seat on the train for the action beyond the tracks is to drink herself into oblivion. When Rachel loses track of those intoxicated hours, so do we. Hawkins drops clues and hints, but obscures them in so much mud that readers can’t do the detective work themselves. The only way to pick up more hints is mediated through Rachel’s knowledge. Her poor decisions are infuriating, but the impenetrability of the mystery makes the book impossible to put down.

While Rachel’s sections of the book are vivid and exciting, the passages dedicated to Megan (the Witney woman who disappeared) and Anna (Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife) falter. The sections detailing Megan’s life before the disappearance hold a fair number of clues and false starts, but Megan is a disappointing wisp of a character — artistic, pixie-like and not much else. Anna is even worse. Her entire personality is based on her dislike of Rachel, and Anna’s passages don’t contain anything interesting, as she spends most of her days whining to her husband and complaining about Rachel. In theory, she’s an effective foil for Rachel because she’s prim and put-together and maternal, everything Rachel wishes she could be. But we don’t gain much from reading Anna’s point of view, aside from the dullness of her passages making Rachel’s feel even more vibrant.

However, the plot and narration aren’t what really make a good thriller a great thriller. The mystery is the beating heart of any excellent crime drama, and “The Girl on the Train” succeeds in this regard. I won’t dare spoil any of the breathlessly twisty plot, but the switch from darkness and impossibility to finally finding out what happened with Megan makes for one of the most visceral, fun reading experiences I’ve had in a long time (since “Gone Girl,” probably). But whether or not the novel’s success is due to its comparison with another smash female-driven mystery, “The Girl on the Train” deserves all the buzz it’s garnering. It’s a thrilling, intoxicating ride from its familiar start to its triumphant finish at the top of the bestseller list.

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