Thursday, March 19, 2015

Girl on a Train: Here's to Unreliable Narrators

Since I've been struggling through some less than satisfying books lately, it's high time I mention a recent bestseller than kept me hooked.  Paula Hawkins' novel The Girl on the Train is getting a lot of attention, even drawing comparisons to Gone Girl.  Rachel, the protagonist, is the girl of the title, a woman whose marriage ended, at least in part, because of her alcoholism, a problem she doesn't really try to hide, though she certainly tries to fight it. She lost her husband Tom, as well as her job, but she keeps riding the same train in to work so the friend who has let her stay at her house--and who moves between pity and disgust--won't know she isn't working.

The train usually makes a daily stop by the street where she once lived and where Tom now lives with his new wife and their baby--particularly painful since Rachel was never able to have a baby, a problem that certainly played a part in her other problems.  She avoids looking at her old house, her old life, but becomes obsessed with a woman she calls Jess (really named Megan) and her husband.  She builds intricate fantasies about their life, but then witnesses another man there with "Jess"--just the day before the woman is reported missing.

Rachel finds herself drawn to the case, remembering only bits and pieces of her own activity the day of the disappearance.  Hawkins weaves in the story of Megan's life with her husband, as well as that of Anna, Tom's new wife.  It is Rachel's story, though, that draws readers' uncomfortable sympathy.  I had to empathize with her friend with whom she stayed as I had to sit back and watch some of her damaging decisions.  When she's questioned by the police, I wanted to help her answer the questions in a way that would make them want to believe her, rather than scorn her.

Unlike Gone Girl, as I read this book, I genuinely wanted Rachel to be safe and sober, to have a better life. While Hawkins maintained suspense by withholding the identity of the real villain in the book, I didn't worry that Rachel might be at fault, only at risk.  I wanted her to take care of herself, since she seemed to have almost no one else. While Megan was beyond saving, I wanted to believe Rachel was not.

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