Book Club Review: Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – June 2015

blog by Cindy Bushey


Zion’s Readers recently enjoyed their last meeting before breaking for the summer. What more can be wanted than a warm evening, a lovely deck, delicious food, good company, and lots of laughter and conversation? Especially when the conversation revolves around our most recent selection The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins!

This mystery novel is set in present day England, and the author begins by introducing three different women: Rachel, Anna, and Megan. Rachel is an alcoholic and recently divorced, Anna is married to Rachel’s ex, Tom, and Megan is the woman Rachel watches from her train window as she pretends to go to a job from which she was fired. As she develops these characters and their connections with each other, the author explores how ephemeral memories can be, how thin the line between perspectives, and how fragile a person’s grasp of reality can become.

Although Ms. Hawkins’ background is in journalism and this is her debut novel, she certainly shows a mature ability to utilize suspense in the development of her plot. However, her technique of focusing on a different woman and jumping back and forth in the dates of each chapter caused some irritation and annoyance to Zion’s readers and made it more difficult to engage in the book from the beginning. None of the women were especially empathetic characters with whom our readers could identify. Rachel’s drinking did not inspire pity or sympathy but rather an urge to tell her enough already! Get yourself back on track! Her ability to mentally construct entire lives for Megan and her husband when she had never met them indicated either a loose hold on reality or a desire to escape from it. Rachel’s inability to let go of her relationship with Tom made Anna’s hatred of her almost understandable, but Anna was no saint, either. Her regret at leaving the adrenaline rush of flirting and sleeping around for the staid, even keel of marriage (as one reader said, she made a great mistress but a terrible, nagging wife) did not gain her any points with our readers. Megan’s troubled past filled with tragedy left her unable to find contentment with one man, always needing new sexual conquests in a vain attempt to fill a void in her life. In short, all extremely flawed women involved with equally flawed men – somehow all the males in their lives were either verbally or physically abusive. Then Megan ends up dead, Rachel believes she may have seen something important, and her eventual collision course with Anna is set in motion.

Some of Zion’s readers got a little bogged down as the author eventually brought them to this point of the novel, but some were intrigued and speculated if the women were really one person with multiple personalities. As the story developed, it became apparent this was not the case. A couple readers felt overtones of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window as Anna became a voyeur peering into Megan’s home during her train ride. In a larger sense, the author made all of our readers into voyeurs watching the lives of these characters fall apart. Yet she skillfully shifted our perspectives of them in ways reminiscent of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a previous selection of our book club. Perhaps it is true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery because it seems obvious that Ms. Hawkins’ style owes a great deal to Ms. Flynn’s masterful character manipulation in that book.

Without giving the entire story line away, we met a therapist who appeared to be the most normal of characters or a sleazy practitioner – it all depended on where our perspective originated and through which of the women’s eyes we were looking. It also sparked a discussion over whether doctor-patient confidentiality ends at death (consensus: perhaps technically but not morally). Our readers then moved to a consideration of whether honesty is always the best policy, especially in this age of everything being bared to the public through social media. Does no one keep anything private anymore, and is the world a better place because of that? We think not.

As the plot thickened the murderer resurfaced, and Rachel experienced blackouts from drinking. One reader shared this unsettling tidbit: blackout drinking and general anesthesia are as close to death as you get in life – your mind is not making memories in either case – and with blackout drinking binges one is left with only bad decisions. As the plot resolves, Rachel and Anna are reaching new decisions, the characters’ true selves are revealed and their perspectives shift along with our readers’. There is another death, a hint of a threat, and a wondering if Anna’s and Rachel’s paths will cross again. All in all, an interesting book if you can get past the slow beginning. Many of Zion’s readers felt it would be a great beach read or summer read for anyone who has a few hours, a deck chair, and a cold drink. Nine of them gave it one thumb up and two were neutral. Zion’s readers will be back in September with Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.