Review: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

As a crime fiction fan and the daughter of a railway worker I have a fondness for mysteries that take place around trains and am well-served, with many authors being attracted to the theme. Both Patricia Highsmith (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) and Agatha Christie (MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) have produced genre classics that centre on trains. I can think of two detectives who do the majority of their sleuthing on trains: Victor Whitechurch’s vegetarian railway detective Thorpe Hazell, and Robert Craddock who is the hero of Edward Marston’s historical series set in the era in which trains were first making their way through England’s countryside. Stories, like this one, in which people glimpse something momentous through a train window, are especially popular. As far back as 1890 Émile Zola, in LA BÊTE HUMAINE, wrote of a man grappling with his own mental issues who spies a man with a knife through a train window and then finds a body. In Dame Christie’s lesser known train-based novel, 4:50 FROM PADDINGTON, an elderly woman travelling on one train sees a man strangling a woman in a train passing in the other direction.

Alas THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN won’t be joining my collection of great train mysteries. In my head it will be forever known as THE DRUNK I WISH HAD FALLEN UNDER A TRAIN but I guess that’s not a title that speeds off the bookstore shelves with quite the same volume as books with the now almost ubiquitous GIRL title do.

TheGirlOnTheTrainPaula23768_fThe book is told from the first-person perspective of three women. Rachel, our primary whiny narcissist, is the unemployed, alcoholic ex-wife of Tom, a man she remains obsessed with. She is the girl of the book’s title. On her daily train journeys to and from London she looks out the window, focusing most intently on what she can see of the goings on in the street where she used to live with the aforementioned Tom. One day she sees something that angers her which later turns out to, possibly, have some wider significance. Megan is the unemployed, anxious wife of Scott, a man she doesn’t seem able to be faithful to for five minutes. Anna is the new wife of Tom and stay-at-home-mum of baby Evie. She misses being Tom’s mistress, having never felt any guilt over that role (although she pretended to when talking to her friends).

I could quote great swathes of the novel as examples of why I found these dishonest, judgemental, amoral characters so excruciating to read about but we’d be here all day. So I decided to use just one passage, this one from Megan, to illustrate the kind of vapid self-absorption the book is peppered with. She is ruminating on the fact her husband needs reassurance that she is not ‘up to anything’

I can’t really be angry with him because he has good reason to be suspicious. I’ve given him cause in the past and probably will again. I am not a model wife. I can’t be. No matter how much I love him it won’t be enough…I told myself I wouldn’t do it again, not after last time, but then I saw him and I wanted him and I thought ‘why not?’ I don’t see why I should restrict myself. Lots of people don’t. Men don’t. I don’t want to hurt anybody but you have to be true to yourself don’t you?.

If that sounds like the sort of person you want to spend a few hours with then by all means read the book. If it doesn’t, then do yourself a favour and go for a walk.

I know fictional characters do not have to be likeable. But, surely, they are obliged to be interesting. In teeny tiny morsels, amidst the endless self-pity all three women drone on with, some explanations are offered for their respective attitudes and behaviour. But the explanations took far too long to materialise and are too obvious to make the women’s stories compelling. Even Rachel admits drunks like her are boring. And the fact that her narration is a mixture of dreams, drunken half-memories and imaginings just makes her unreliable. Not interesting.

To be clear I found the characterisations quite believable, just not engaging. When I come across such people in real life I take steps to spend as little time as possible in their company. If life is too short to read awful books it is surely too short to spend with dullards. Especially whiny ones whose only interest is themselves and the slights – both real and imagined – life in their first-world bubbles has dealt them.

There isn’t even much of a mystery. One of the women disappears and the other two are, in their way, involved. But I didn’t think it much of a stretch to work out what had gone on. Not that I cared. I mainly read to the end because this is a selection for my book club (I always try to finish those). Plus for a while I held out hope that more of the characters would die. But they weren’t even interesting enough for that.

The overall plot is cleverly constructed – the way the three women’s stories and relationships are unveiled is a genuine accomplishment – but so many individual elements are ham-fisted, such as Rachel’s too-convenient alcoholic blackouts that last only until forward movement demands she remember something more, that I can’t even be positive about the storyline. I thought for a while that the author was making some commentary about transient nature of reality – one person’s truth is not necessarily another’s and so on – but then I decided I was looking for meaning in all the wrong places.

I am baffled by the hype and superlatives that have been heaped upon this novel. Even my fellow book club member loves it (which might make for an interesting discussion when the club gets together this weekend). Sometimes I am able to see what it is that attracts people about a book I haven’t enjoyed but in this instance I feel like I have read a completely different thing. I cannot imagine why anyone who didn’t feel bound by book club ethics would bother reading more than a few pages about the self-indulgent, dull-witted individuals that populated the book I read. Indeed I gave up on the hard copy version of the book supplied by my friendly library and resorted to the audio version for about the last half of the book. At least that way I could wash dishes as I consumed the story so my time wasn’t completely wasted.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrators Clare Corbett, India Fisher, Louise Brealey
Publisher Random House Audio [2015]
Length 10 hours 57 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone

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27 Responses to Review: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

  1. As you know, I liked it much better than you did, but I did enjoy your review! Your bad reviews are the best fun on the internet. And I love this line: ‘Plus for a while I held out hope that more of the characters would die. But they weren’t even interesting enough for that.’ I have felt the way you do about other books (does that make sense?), but this one had enough there to grab me – we fell on opposite sides of the (railway) line. Wish I’d known about the Zola reference for the Guardian piece I did about what people see from trains in books….


    • Thanks Moira…the reviews of books I don’t like are fun to write…happily there aren’t many these days.

      The Zola book would not have worked for your article because the man is looking into the window from outside the train (variation on a theme I guess) but it’s still worth a read for train & mystery fans.


  2. Nancy L Humphrys says:

    Well written review.
    I am completely baffled by the popularity of this book.


  3. Patti Abbott says:

    Could not get through it. Don’t get the popularity either.


  4. Margot Kinberg says:

    Brilliant review, Bernadette, ‘though I am sorry to hear you didn’t like this one. It has been getting so much hype, hasn’t it? I keep hearing things about it, and do admit I had it on my radar. I know exactly what you mean about the characters, too. Oh, and about trains? They make fabulous contexts for novels and series.


  5. Christine says:

    I hated it as well!


  6. Rebecca says:

    I had a sneaking suspicion you wouldn’t be a fan since I read a few lukewarm reviews– first person narration is always a gamble, I think. I’m weary of unlikeable and unreliable narrators in general. What’s the next trend, I wonder.


    • I wish I had paid more attention to the hype Rebecca – but then I would have read it anyway due to book club. Agree that first person narration is a gamble – seems to be more popular these days – sadly. As for next trends I shudder to think


  7. FictionFan says:

    Haha! Brilliant review! I too have read the occasional book where I wished the murderer would bump off a few more! Must admit as soon as I heard that the main protagonist of this was yet another drunk, I knew it wasn’t for me. As you suggest, why spend time with people in fiction that we’d cross the street (or the Atlantic even) to avoid in real life.


  8. Kay says:

    This book does seem to make readers go to one end of the spectrum or the other. I loved your comment about wishing more characters would die. It made me snort with laughter. I finished it and then had an argument with myself about how much I disliked the characters. It was a lot, really, but the whole alcoholic misery touched a nerve with me. As time has passed, I’ve liked it better somehow. Not sure why. Would I pick up another of this author’s works? Likely, just to see. 🙂


    • The alcoholic misery touched a nerve with me too – probably why I found Rachel less sympathetic than some reviewers have done. I figure in real life I have to try to be supportive (as Cathy was to Rachel) but with fictional drunks I can at least be as harsh as I like without consequence


  9. tracybham says:

    Between your review and Kerrie’s and Moira’s, I almost want to read the book just to see how it affects me. But that is only going to happen if I find a very cheap copy, or my husband decides to try it… and I have too many other books I want to read. But I will keep an open mind if I ever decide to try it.


  10. kathy d. says:

    I feel like I’ve gone back and forth like a yo-yo reading reviews about this book. Will I read it or won’t I read it? I wasn’t going to until I read Moira’s review, then I put it on hold at the library. That way I spend nothing and can look at a few pages and see if I’ll be intrigued or not.
    Your reviews tend to sway me but I may try a bit. After all, it’s not costing me anything but some time — but I won’t waste much.
    The hype is unreal, like another Gone Girl phenomenon. I did NOT read that one as I knew I’d throw it across the room, as Maxine used to say she did when reading a crummy book.
    But this book may get that treatment very quickly.


    • Library copy is the way to go Kathy…be curious to see what you make of it. I know heaps of people have loved it so I realise I’m in the minority but it can’t be helped. I wonder how many of my book clubbers other than Kerrie (who loved it) have read and enjoyed it


  11. kathy d. says:

    It’s an enigma like the missing link.


  12. Deborah says:

    I didn’t love it as much as everyone else and found the ending somewhat unsatisfying. I didn’t dislike the novel though.


  13. Robin Rowlands says:

    Thanks for saving me a few hours of my life, Bernadette!! It sounds awful for all the reasons you gave so eloquently. That was one I had been looking forward to without having read any reviews, but yours left me i no doubt that it’s a “don’t bother”.


  14. Belle Wong says:

    I can’t decide whether to read this one or not. I’ve heard about the unlikable narrator (and now i know all three of the main characters are unlikable) and I’m not particularly fond of unlikable narrators (or unreliable ones, for that matter). But a part of me wants to see what all the hype is about! I will likely start reading it and then put it down never to pick it up again, as no book club morals will be involved on my end of things.


  15. kathy d. says:

    Nancy at Crime Segments said this book is “awful.”


  16. JoV says:

    Wow I just love what you said here… ‘……. When I come across such people in real life I take steps to spend as little time as possible in their company. If life is too short to read awful books it is surely too short to spend with dullards. Especially whiny ones whose only interest is themselves and the slights – both real and imagined – life in their first-world bubbles has dealt them.’ I think the same too. I love your review and feel sorry that you have to sit through the whole book. I hope Paula Hawkins don’t publish another one, because I won’t be reading it!


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