Gone Girl is like the Uber of popular fiction—it became huge very quickly, lives up to its hype and now serves as a linguistic benchmark for equivalent genre-defining success. Seems every new thing is the Uber of something now. Likewise, every best-seller whose plot is even vaguely mystery-adjacent seems now sagely tallied in the column “Gone Girl Afterglow,” a category of books defined by our apparent lingering fascination with sultry whodunits whose screenplay adaptations may or may not include brief glimpses of Ben Affleck’s penis.The Girl on the Train has, in short order, joined that column—it’s been at the top of the fiction lists for weeks. But in this case at least, the comparison is apt. Which is all a long-winded way of saying: If you liked Gone Girl, you will absolutely like The Girl on the Train.
In a recent NYT interview, Richard Price said of books he loved: “I didn’t read them; I snorted them,” which strikes me a great way to describe a page-turner. To be sure, I snorted TGOTT, just like I snorted Gone Girl. And TGOTT’s plot is similar: Every day from the window of her commuter train, Rachel catches a glimpse of “Jess and Jason,” a seemingly happy couple who live in a house not too far from the tracks. A down-on-her-luck alcoholic still mourning the end of her marriage, Rachel comes to emotionally rely on her J&J sightings, which is why she’s shocked one day to spot Jess kissing another man. When Jess goes missing a few days later, Rachel is determined to suss out the culprit, while also trying to remember what, if any, part in Jess’s disappearance she may have played herself.
Perhaps more than their missing-person plots, the main similarity between Gone Girl and TGOTT are in both books’ employment of consistently unreliable narrators. In Gone Girl, that title is shared by both Amy and Nick, the missing wife and her suspicious husband. In The Girl on the Train, the net is wider still, both in narration (the book is told from several points of view) and in the Gosford Park-esque ensemble of characters. There’s Rachel, both an emotionally unreliable narrator and a literally unreliable one; she frequently blacks out after drinking. There’s Tom, Rachel’s exasperated ex-husband, and Anna, his prim new wife. There’s Jess, who turns out to be Megan IRL, and Megan’s husband, Scott (i.e. Jason). There’s Cathy, Rachel’s overtly stable roommate, and Cathy’s boyfriend Damien. There’s Megan’s therapist, Kamal Abdic, and there’s the red-haired man Rachel always sees on the train, but can’t quite remember ever speaking to. And then of course there are the cops, detectives Gaskill and Riley, whom Rachel can never seem to get on her side.
As a public transit commuter who often sees the same people, I understand how easy, tempting even, it is to quietly fabricate stories and backgrounds for the passengers around you in a rumbling train car. For the merely bored, it’s an idle pastime, but for the the stalking-susceptible, even such a small fantasy has the power to blossom into something more powerful, and potentially more sinister. With a talent on par with Gillian Flynn or Susanna Moore, Paula Hawkins has created in Rachel a fantastically ambiguous female lead—as impossible to mentally implicate as she is to like or trust—and surrounded her with equally questionable contemporaries. All told, there are enough characters with enough motives to make Jess/Megan’s disappearance a true whodunit, with a slew of possible culprits. All of which makes The Girl on the Train eminently snortable.
TITLE: The Girl on the Train
AUTHOR: Paula Hawkins
PAGES: 336 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: Gone Girl meets Sharp Objects
FIRST LINE: “There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks.”