Since moving to New York, I do most of my reading on the subway, which means that I read most often between the hours of 8-9 AM and 5-6 PM. Exhaustion tends to overtake me on either side of my workday, so I regularly feel compelled to plug into a podcast and relax instead of focusing my eyes on a page, where the words are shaken up by the motion of the train (I here give a nod to that beautiful cover, pictured above).
This book was the cure for that too-frequent subway laziness. I refuse to rave and call any typical thriller/mystery a "page-turner" unless it impresses me beyond belief, but this book did a good job of coming close. It was the sort of book I couldn't imagine stopping in the middle of, never to know the ending. It was the sort of book that made me actually want to keep reading even after my daily commute, curious to find out what happens next.
In the first several pages, we are introduced to our main first-person (present tense) narrator, Rachel--an ex-wife, an alcoholic, an unreliable witness--but first, to us, an observer. She hops on a commuter train at the same time every day, heading to a job that she no longer has just so that she can keep up a pretense of regularity. She sips from cans of gin and tonic (the first major clue that the story takes place in the UK) and stares out the window of the train at the houses and people below. She imagines the lives of the perfect couples she sees on their back patios; she gives them names and histories and jobs and wonders what it would be like to be a part of these worlds that she has been locked out of since her own failing relationship.
This observation/imagination is likely a familiar scenario for any regular user of public transportation. People-watching has a certain charm to it that, when combined with trains, makes me think warmly of my first time reading Murder on the Orient Express. I felt like I'd been waiting for a story like this, where our narrator finds herself woven into the tapestry of a mystery because of a chance sighting from a distance.
And that's exactly what happens. Because one day, Rachel looks out her train window and sees the woman from one of the "perfect" couples kissing a man who is definitely not her husband. And a short while later, when that woman goes missing, Rachel finds herself desperate to build up her credibility and aid the police in spite of her alcoholism, her rubbernecking, and the huge gaps in her memory. Because she definitely saw something else the night that the woman went missing--something bad--even if she can't quite remember what.
I try desperately to make sense of an elusive fragment of memory. I feel certain that I was in an argument, or that I witnessed an argument. Was that with Anna? My fingers go to the wound on my head, to the cut on my lip. I can almost see it, I can almost hear the words, but it shifts away from me again. I just can't get a handle on it. Every time I think I'm about to seize the moment, it drifts back into the shadow, just beyond my reach. (43)
Although the story is excellent in so many ways, there were a couple lacking elements, mostly in the narrative. Rachel's unreliability as a witness is essential for supporting the mystery element of the novel, because if she remembered everything right away, then case closed. We can all go home. So her memory gaps are a necessity, and that works effectively as a storytelling device.
But unfortunately, Rachel's self-pity streak and reliance on alcohol sometimes makes it difficult to actually care about her. Yes, her husband left her. Yes, she's a drunk. Yes, the police think she's insane, because what the heck is she doing, traveling on a train she doesn't need and spying out the window on people she doesn't know? Of course these things put her in a bad place. But does she have to be so miserable about it?
On the train, the tears come, and I don't care if people are watching me; for all they know, my dog might have been run over. I might have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I might be a barren, divorced, soon-to-be-homeless alcoholic. (50)
I'm being insensitive, and I realize the author is just trying to be realistic about Rachel's character. I, for one, usually like the unlikable narrator. A narrator doesn't have to be likable to be good, and I understand that Rachel's personality suits her situation. And by the end of the story, I agree it works. Sometimes it was just tough dealing with it on the road throughout. And the narrative does shift between three characters, which I normally don't care for, but in this case, I welcomed the occasional reprieve from Rachel's voice.
All in all, there was nothing remarkable about the writing itself either way; in the occasional scenes where we've flipped narrators and have two familiar characters speaking, there were even some moments I had trouble telling who was who. In terms of mystery novels, though, the writing was fine, up to standard expectations.
Overall, The Girl on the Train is a success of compelling storytelling, and it is not totally transparent in terms of mystery-writing, either. While the ending isn't necessarily blow-your-mind good, and while you might wager correct guesses as you venture into the final act, I wouldn't say the solution is obvious. As most of the story is told from Rachel's point of view, you'll stumble along through dark hallways with her as she illuminates the recesses of her memory, gradually discovering details about the men in the missing woman's life, and frequently changing your mind about the characters you trust--your narrators included.
OVERALL RATING (within genre): 4/5 Stars
TL;DR: The Girl on the Train is a must-read for lovers of the mystery genre who are seeking a departure from hard-boiled detectives and series regulars. Like her or not, the central narrator of the book falls into a rare "real witness" category that allows readers to journey with her to the solution of a crime that she observes from an outsider perspective and desperately (and at least semi-altruistically) wishes to become part of.
As a side note, this book is a Penguin Random House "Title Wave" pick, which means it was selected as an outstanding new novel worthy of a little additional attention. I think it lives up to that claim. It's a very satisfying reading experience, and I can't recall even a single a boring moment over the course of the story. I feel very lucky to have had access to advance copy of this novel, and when it publishes on January 15th, 2015, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy.