Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Review - The Girl on The Train

This debut novel by Paula Hawkins received a ton of hype and buzz early on and was lauded as one of the best thrillers of the year. Due to plot twists and turns, the plot synopsis is intentionally vague. Basically there is a woman named Rachel who rides a commuter train back and forth every day. There is a stretch of track where the train always slows and sometimes spots. The track is along the backside of a suburban neighborhood where Rachel has taken to watching the people. In particular there is one young couple she's become entranced with and has even gone so far as to make up names ("Jess and Jason"), occupations and lifestyles for them. She uses them to vicariously live out a sort of "happily ever after" fantasy that she doesn't have herself. Then, as the synopsis explains, one day she sees "something shocking." Shortly after, a shocking report appears in the news and Rachel starts trying to fill in blanks and make what she believes are logical leaps which leads her to go to the police and to start her own investigation of the affairs of the neighborhood.

The story is interesting and it's set up in a Hitchcockian kind of way where readers (and Rachel) are only given partial information and it is unclear exactly how reliable that information may be. Most of the book is told from Rachel's point of view and it is very quickly apparent that she is a very unreliable narrator. Her perceptions and her memories are imperfect, cloudy and full of holes. She is impulsive and quick to take action on her perceived beliefs no matter how ill founded they may be. To one extent, I can buy-in to her as a very unreliable narrator but on the other hand it was frustrating (and sometimes unbelievable) to see her constantly making such bad decisions even when she acknowledges her own failings. She is self-aware of how little she truly knows and how reckless she is being with her actions, and yet she continues pushing forward from bad to worse. Eventually things start working out a little better and she begins unraveling what's truly going on, but the meandering in the middle of the book was frustrating at times. I did like that other characters were equally frustrated with Rachel's bad decisions. It made me feel a little vindicated in my own frustration.

As a balance to Rachel's narration, the author also interspersed a few chapters from the points of view of other female characters. Some of these chapters are scenes from the past catching up to the present and others are retelling of scenes or moments that Rachel was involved in but told from a different point of view. This technique was interesting but it was a fine balancing act as the author tried to fill in story elements while still keeping essential plot points at a distance to try and keep the reader from guessing the mystery and solving the "twist" prematurely. As a result, these other narrators felt a little flat to me. These story segments were interesting and I enjoyed the alternate perspective from a (supposedly) more reliable narrator but their isolated and sparse nature left them unbalanced.

The plot trajectory was generally a lot of fun. It started out pretty strong introducing Rachel and this voyeuristic suspenseful mystery something akin to Hitchcock's Rear Window. The next many chapters were a bit sluggish as Rachel meandered through the paces trying to piece together clues and figure out exactly what she was looking for. Once she got into her groove, the story picked up steam again and maintained a good steady pace until the conclusion. Midway through the book, I was making guesses as to possible solutions to the mystery...some were very far guess was generally correct but I "back burnered" it due to lack of good information. When I finally did fully guess the twist in the story and the solution, I was fairly certain I was correct but there was so much uncertainty in the book that there was still an element of doubt. When Rachel came to the same conclusion I did, I felt more sure but she had so many bad insights that it wasn't until the true "reveal" took place that I could be certain. That said, the motivation and the twists were stretched a little bit but also felt believable. What didn't sit quite as plausible to me were the actions of Rachel and one of the other female characters at the end of the climactic conclusion. I don't want to spoil the moment but I just have to say that the actions of the other woman were shocking and felt a bit "off"...and yet, given the situation, I guess it could happen.

Overall I enjoyed the concept and the construction of the story. I've loved Hitchcock's stories since I was a kid and I love being thrown into mysteries where everything you think you know is blurred by a broken perception model of some kind. The narrative structure and character setup of Rachel allowed for interesting setup that I thought was fun. I would have liked a stronger middle section to the book but acknowledge that it's a tough balancing act to keep information at arm's length while still advancing characters and plot. The nature of the crime and the criminal ended up being completely despicable to the extent that the end of the novel was satisfying even if some bits felt a little strained. Given the success and buzz around this book, I'm sure we'll see more from Hawkins in the future and I'll be interested to see her growth as an author.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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