Do you ever read a book or watch a movie and the whole time you’re at it you think it’s great? And then it’s over and you’re thinking about it and it gets more and more irritating? Welcome to The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. It’s a wild ride and it ends squarely in conservatism.
Rachel Watson is a broken woman. She’s an alcoholic, she lives in a room at a college friend’s apartment, she’s unemployed and her money is about to run out. She’s also still trying to get her ex-husband back, even though he’s remarried with a kid and cheated on her with his present wife.
When a woman from the same street she used to live on goes missing, Rachel starts playing amateur sleuth. She’s been on the street that night, she knows, but since she was drunk off her ass she can’t remember anything else. And then the case of the missing Megan becomes a murder investigation.
You will not be able to put this book down. It will chain you to your favorite reading chair or sofa because it’s really thrilling that way. Rachel is an unreliable narrator and you’re exploring the happenings of that fateful August day with her, the day Megan Hipwell went missing. And even if you’ve come up with a sound theory of who the murder could be, you’ll still want to know how Rachel finally finds out. This is what the book does really well, the story is compelling. Rachel, while unreliable, is still borderline likable and we stumble through the story with her.
Unfortunately, she’s the only even semi-likable character. Everybody else is an asshole. I can’t put it differently. In making everyone a suspect, Hawkins robs the characters of the readers’s sympathy. But it’s not just the readers’s sympathy; the characters also don’t like or trust each other. And this may be even more problematic. Imagine a bunch of straight relationships that are not built on love but control; friendships that depend on what the other person can do for you at a given moment. This lack of sympathy among the characters makes it really hard to read.
I’m not saying that the mere atmosphere of the text is dark, I really like dark pieces, but having characters that despise each other? That’s depressing. I started reading Hawkins’s second book, Into the Water, and it’s even more pronounced there. You have a whole town with people who suspect and hate each other.
With the dislike among the characters, the matrix of relationships is really out of whack. While we only have heterosexual relationships, they’re all unhealthy. Diversity isn’t Hawkins strong suit, the only character who’s not helplessly Anglo-Saxon is Megan’s psychiatrist Kamal Abdic – a refugee and convenient first suspect. The book feels stinted in its sameness of characters and relationships, and the way they’re all unhealthy.
Maybe these things only bother me, it’s possible. But I can’t help feeling annoyed by how little growth or hope the book allows. Maybe adding a fourth narrating voice, maybe that of Detective Riley could have added something uplifting or sobering, I’m not sure. As it is, it’s just really depressing. I can’t find a better word for it.
I’m not likely to finish Into the Water, but maybe you will like Hawkins’s writing better than I do. I certainly do hope that you’ll enjoy reading this book, it’s really good, even if it’s not without flaws.