Talk about a reading one-two punch. When I finished Emily St. John Mandel’s fantastic “Station Eleven,” I thought to myself, “Welp, that’ll be the best book I read in 2015.”
But alas, I was wrong, wrong, wrong — because Paula Hawkins’ debut novel “The Girl on the Train” was so right, right, right.
Disclaimer No. 1: I’m what you call a “railfan,” one who loves trains. The sound (especially the sound), watching them go by, riding them (yes, even the subways here in New York) … there’s just something about trains that make me both melancholy and inspired at the same exact time. I’ve written countless poems and haikus and tankas about them, and it doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing, if I hear a far-off train or its whistle, I pause, look up and immediately wonder, “Where’s it going? Who’s riding it? Why are they riding it? Is there a woman scribbling as fast as she can in her journal about the experience as I would be?”
Disclaimer No. 2: I’m also what you might call a voyeur. No, not the climb-up-a-tree-and-masturbate-while-I-watch-you-through-the-window Peeping Tom, heaven’s no! It’s nothing sexual at all. I’m more of a, I guess we can say social voyeur; I’m absolutely fascinated by people. I guess that’s a fancy way of saying I’m a Nosy Nelly because I just like watching and wondering about people on the streets, trains, everywhere. I wonder what they do for a living, what kind of person they are, where they’re going at that particular moment, what their hopes and dreams are.
In fact, I’ve always wanted to be a therapist because I love listening to people talk about themselves and their problems — and then help them overcome them. Sadly, I didn’t have the grades nor, let’s face it, the drive to go to school that long to be a therapist for real, so I settle for doing it with my friends and family. It’s also a great outlet for my natural bossiness, TBQH.
So, having said all that, Rachel, the lead character in “The Girl on the Train,” was easy for me to identify with because she commutes to and from London every day. And every day, she stares out at the happy little homes that line the train track, especially on a certain stretch where the train stops at a signal each trip to and fro. Stopped there, she often spies a lovely couple she calls Jess and Jason hanging out on their back porch. She only glimpses them briefly each time, but in her head, Rachel knows J&J have this perfect, loving and enviable life, the exact antithesis to the life she has since left behind in her former home just a few doors down from them, where her ex-husband still lives, but now with his new wife and baby daughter.
I won’t give away too much because you really need to meet Rachel and “Jess and Jason,” who moved in after she left the neighborhood, and her ex and his replacement for her for yourself. But I will tell you that Rachel may not be the most reliable narrator for what she eventually saw from her perch on the train and the suspenseful events that happen afterward. She’s a terrible drunk, one you want to just shake sense into as you immerse yourself in her world and story and life, and she’s a bit pathetic and maybe even psychotic. She makes you wonder whether she’s more involved in what I’ll call The Incident than you even think.
You find out, oh, you find out — and it’s nothing at all that you expected, which is why my heart raced every time I opened up the book on my own train commute. I had to know what happened, what was happened, I needed to know.
Told from three different perspectives, Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train” was just as gripping and exciting as Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” and maybe even more so. One big reason for that is the story, of course, which I’ve seen correctly described as “Hitchcockian” by an online reviewer. Another reason is because Hawkins deftly knows how to “lay down a line,” as my beloved Bukowski once said about Hemingway, and several of them left me absolutely breathless:
“My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like a tracking shot in a film.”
“There’s something comforting about the site of strangers safe at home.”
“Living like this, the way I’m living at the moment, is harder in the summer when there is so much daylight, so little cover of darkness, when everyone is out and about, being flagrantly, aggressively happy. It’s exhausting, and it makes you feel bad if you’re not joining in.”
“Life is not a paragraph.”
“Nobody warned me it would break us. But it did. Or rather, it broke me, and then I broke us.”
“And then I went from being a drinker to being a drunk, and there’s nothing more boring than that.”
“I don’t know where that strength went. I don’t remember losing it. I think that over time it got chipped away, bit by bit, by life, by the living of it.”
I mean, COME ON. SO GOOD. SO DAMN GOOD. What a great ride. Railfanning pun intended, of course.