Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Girl on the Train: What's all the fuss about?

So, Paula Hawkins’ thriller, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, sold two million copies in three months and is still going strong. It has been translated into a zillion languages and has been on the best seller list for weeks and weeks. It’s been reviewed by Amazon customers 11,980 times and 78% of those reviewers gave it either four or five stars. It has also received some very good reviews from critics.

So, I should just shut up, right? Like our mothers used to say, “If you can’t say something nice about something, then don’t say anything.” After all, who am I to contradict two million readers and counting?
But, honestly … I can’t quite see what the fuss is all about. Yes, it has elements of “Rear Window” and “Gaslight” and “Presumed Innocent” and, of course, “Gone Girl.”

The author pretty clearly tells you who the murderer is on page 34. Leaving you with 289 pages to get to what you knew was coming.

But, consider this. The main narrator, a fall-down drunk, consumes many canned gin-and-tonics on the train during her daily commutes. Canned gin-and-tonics. I think that’s the perfect metaphor for the novel itself: no one who has ever had a fresh, well-made gin-and-tonic could truly enjoy one that comes in a can.

Add to that: on page 34 of the 323 page book, the author pretty clearly tells you who the murderer is – if, that is, you’re paying attention to what you’re reading. Then you only have 289 more pages to get to what you knew was coming.

And, add to that the fact that, with two minor exceptions, there is not a single likable character in the entire book. There are three alternating narrators: Rachel, the aforementioned drunk who suffers blackouts and always picks the most self-destructive path in any situation; Megan, the murder victim who is a serially unfaithful wife and whose irresponsible behavior may have led to the death of a baby; and Anna, a smug, “entitled” woman who does not regret in the least having broken up a marriage for the sheer pleasure of doing it. The therapist has sex with a vulnerable patient. The two husbands are prone to violence. The female cop is a smirking, condescending eye-roller; the male cop is ineffectual and vague.

About the only decent people in the book are Rachel’s landlady/friend/enabler who keeps giving her second chances and a place in which to live, throw up and leave her urine-soaked clothes lying around; and the “red-haired man” who helps Rachel to her feet and offers to take her home when he finds her, drunk, bleeding and incoherent. As near as I can tell, he’s given a walk-on part for the sole purpose of giving Rachel a tiny clue toward the end of the book.  Sort of a commuter ex machina.

Add to that the fact that, with two minor exceptions, there is not a single likable character in the entire book. 

And while I’m on a rant, let me point out that the three narrators speak in first person and are prone to saying things like, “I am sitting on my bed.” “I am looking out the window.” “I am walking in the park.” Whatever happened to the old, “Show, Don’t Tell” maxim?

So, now that I’ve told you what I DIDN’T like about the book, let me, in fairness, tell you what other people, who DID like it, said.

Claire Fallon, writing for Huff Post Books (2/4/15): “Hawkins keeps the tension high, right up until the perhaps slightly over-dramatic conclusion – but if the final scenes are slightly absurd, the pay-off, at least, is fantastic, answering every moment of delicious suspense that’s built up throughout the novel.”

And comparing it to Gone Girl (as most critics do), Fallon added: “… ‘The Girl on the Train’ takes a less defiant angle. Rachel comes off as pathetic – women won’t want to emulate her – but Hawkins’ masterful deployment of unwittingly unreliable narration to evoke the aftershocks of abuse and trauma is an equally powerful way of exploring women’s marginalization. Long after ‘Gaslight,’ the problem of how easily women can be manipulated to question our own perception – how deeply we’re socialized to question ourselves and trust male authority – remains. ‘The Girl on the Train’ wants us to think about why we hasten to dismiss women who seem broken and confused, when these qualities are often signs of a more painful backstory.”

Michael Schaub wrote on NPR Books (1/13/15), “This is Hawkins’ first thriller – she’s a journalist by training – but it doesn’t read like the work of someone new to suspense. The novel is perfectly paced, from its arresting beginning to its twist ending; it’s not an easy book to put down. Even the most cleverly plotted thrillers don’t work without compelling characters, but the people we meet in ‘The Girl on the Train’ are drawn beautifully.” Schaub added, “The ending plays out like a movie scene – perhaps a little too much like one, though it’s easy to forgive a little melodrama when the prose that’s led up to it is so solid.”

Suzi Feah (The Guardian 1/8/15) wrote, “…Hawkins has come up with an ingenious slant on the currently fashionable amnesia thriller.”

And Janet Maslin (NY Times, 1/4/15) had this to say: “One sign of this book’s ingenuity is the way key details are effortlessly omitted. And you’re not apt to miss them until the dénouement, when it is pointed out that certain characters never appeared and certain facts were never explained. Another appealing thing about the book is that while Ms. Hawkins’s writing is more serviceable than stylish, she gives her thinly drawn women some brainpower. Rachel finds out about Tom’s affair with Anna via email, of course. Horrified as she is, she can’t help being amused that he has used the same line on Anna that he once used on her: ‘Don’t expect me to be sane, I can’t be, not with you.’ Or that he lifted it from Henry Miller.”

I raise my well-made gin-and-tonic to all and hope that we can, in a very civilized manner, agree to disagree. Cheers!


  1. Thanks for saving me the time for another book ... this was heavily pushed at me from many book lists but I was on the fence about it. Not any more.

  2. I wish I had read this before reading the book.

    1. Thanks. But, at this very moment, publicists are probably excitedly pushing at least a dozen about-to-be-released books as the NEXT 'Girl on the Train.'

  3. I did enjoy this book, BEFORE I knew anything about writing. Then after 7 months I scanned through some pages again, I realized she told the story instead of showing it.