People who enjoyed Gone Girl might enjoy this thriller, although the setting is England instead of the United States, and the mystery is not quite as riveting. With a main character that is somewhat unsavory and weak in ways that appear self-indulgent rather than tragic, The Girl on the Train explores the downfall of Rachel Watson, once a proficient professional in a happy marriage. She had trouble getting pregnant and after one attempt at in vitro fertilization, slips into a mixture of depression and alcoholism, until the marriage falls apart. We find her living if a rented room and making inopportune phone calls to her former husband and his new wife, who is caring for their newborn child.
Rachel takes the 8:06 train every morning to go into central London. She observes the homes and yards abutting the railway on the way and fantasizes about the lives of the people who live in those houses. This looks innocuous until we realize that one of the houses is the one she used to live in and that her husband still owns it and lives there with his new wife and baby. She is also mesmerized by a young couple living a few doors down from her former husband, has made up names for them, and imagines what their lives could be.
One day, a woman disappears and Rachel realizes from the newscast that it is the young woman that she has been observing from the train. In fact, she has seen her kiss a man who was not her husband in the garden that day and had been very disappointed that the woman’s behavior did not meet the high standards of her fantasy world.
What unravels is the complex relationships between Rachel, her ex-husband and his wife, the neighboring couple, the wife’s therapist and the police officers investigating the disappearance. It did take me a while to figure who was the “bad guy” and to understand the actual nature of Rachel’s predicament. She had learned not to trust her memory, especially since she drank a lot and experienced blackouts. Her efforts to control her drinking and to remember events on key dates eventually yield a result…
I have often wondered about the lives of others, wondered about what goes on beyond the lit windows of my neighborhood as I take evening walks. However, Rachel’s behaviour, of repetitive, compulsive observation to gather clues regarding what is happening in her former husband’s life is much closer to the behavior of a stalker. And for a long time in the book, I thought that she was the one who was going to commit a crime of some nature.
One thing I did not try very hard to follow was the actual timeline of the chapters and the times at which specific information about characters or events where imparted. Each chapter or chapter segment shows a date and time, and the story is not told in a chronological order. I did have to turn back to a previous chapter once in a while to figure out the sequencing, and drawing it out as I read might have been helpful.
Hawkins, Paula. The Girl on the Train. Doubleday Canada, 2014.