“With great power comes great responsibility.” Wait, that’s life advice for Peter Parker (and Spider-Man). For authors, particularly debut authors like Paula Hawkins in The Girl on the Train, it’s more like “with weighty comparisons to bestselling novels come often insurmountable expectations.”
Even if you’re not a crime fiction fan—and this is surely part of the book’s enduring appeal almost two years after its release—you’ve probably read (or at the very least know) the basic gist of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Girl meets boy in New York. Girl and boy get married. Girl and boy live seemingly happy life for a few years. Girl and boy move to Missouri. Girl and boy are about to celebrate five-year anniversary but girl disappears. Boy is a suspect. Girl leaves behind a singularly nasty diary. Turns out girl and boy weren’t so happy after all.
In addition to gutting marriage like a fish and stomping all over its entrails, Flynn also flits back and forth between the past and the present, a technique Hawkins puts to excellent use in Train. In this London-set debut, Rachel Watson—lonely, unemployed, well on her way to becoming a full-blown alcoholic—takes the same train from the suburbs every day, passing the house she once shared with her husband, Tom, who now lives there with his mistress-turned-wife, Anna. That Rachel is obsessed with Tom and the life they once shared is putting it mildly; she’s also constructed an entire fantasy life about the new couple, Megan and Scott, who’ve moved in next door and who she also sees on a nearly daily basis as her train chugs by.
When Megan vanishes, Rachel is convinced—and so convinces the reader—that somewhere beyond the gin and tonic-fueled fog in her brain is a key piece of information about Megan’s disappearance. While Rachel is the primary narrator, Hawkins also gives a voice to Megan and, surprisingly, Anna. Rachel is both a sympathetic (Hawkins is able to nimbly walk the difficult line between deeply flawed but relatable and pitiful) and an unreliable narrator, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when the reader finally sees the big picture as all the pieces making up the mystery of Megan fall into place.
It’s a common trope in crime fiction that nothing is as it seems. In Gone Girl, the Dunnes’ happy marriage was anything but. In Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, the dashing Tom Ripley doesn’t actually want to be your friend: he wants to steal your life and stow your corpse somewhere convenient. And in The Girl on a Train, Rachel Watson isn’t just a lonely woman who drinks too much and whose husband left her for another woman. She’s quite possibly the witness to a crime, only it if she reports it she opens the door to ridicule and even prosecution for her unwitting role in Megan’s disappearance. And all this makes the reader wonder: is this a girl who’s really gone?