07 August 2016

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train
In a matter of weeks, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train comes to a theatre near you. The novel comprises a compendium of sorts, a compilation of first person accounts by three women. It is, you might correctly infer, an offshoot of chicklit and contains enough internal dialogue to fill two Dr. Phil shows and most of an Oprah season. It’s most definitely not intended or promoted as a manbook.
But, for a guy fascinated by women, this one enjoyed it.

From time to time, I’ve had to make an unlikeable character likeable, but Paula Hawkins has honed that technique to a science. She accomplishes this through the devices mentioned above: internal thoughts and first person narrative.

The author nails showing-not-telling. She doesn’t tell the reader a character is an alcoholic, she lets you see it. But she takes the show-not-tell to another level of abstraction when the main character, Rachel, looks in on lives from a distance, making guesses and assumptions that naturally might or might not be true.

Even if the characters aren’t immediately likeable, we feel varying degrees of sympathy for most, especially the landlady, Cathy, who gets short shrift. We quietly urge Rachel to get her act together and groan at her many slips. The author could have titled the novel Train Wreck and been right on the mark.

Green Garden

I haven’t thought of Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden since required reading in high school, but a few unreliable brain cells brought that novel to mind. Maybe the only comparison is of a troubled young woman and her inner battle, but perhaps distant memory is suggesting something more. Probably it’s the battle with alcoholism and this book is a veritable textbook on the subject. More than most writings on the topic, the reader will feel empathy in the ‘there but for the grace of God’ moments.

The Girl on the Train has been compared with another popular novel, Gone Girl, but except for the word ‘girl’ in the title and the disappearance of one, I don’t see much similarity. I found Gone Girl more unputdownable, but only for a matter of degree and for different reasons. TGOTT isn’t a thriller like Gone Girl; it’s more gothic and personal. I closed the book reluctantly each evening, wondering how Rachel would get out of the mess she found herself in.

Off the Rails

Railways run as a motif throughout the novel; literally the last word in the book is ‘train’. Cleverly or at least amusingly, Amtrak has been offering on-line excerpts through on-board wifi for passengers travelling through America.

The story uses the device of an unreliable narrator, in this case a woman who suffers from alcoholic blackouts. She may have seen something, but if she did, she can’t remember. The author also employs misdirection; one part in particular navigates a minefield of tricky pronouns. The plot strays from that of a traditional mystery; the protagonist has to figure out what’s in her head and the reader must merely observe rather than solve.

The American MPAA rates the upcoming film R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity, most which appear in minute fragments in the novel if at all. Producers sadly decided to stage the story in New York instead of the UK, so anything’s possible.

And Finally…

One last point: Despite the small measure of action in the novel, the third paragraph from the end is one of the most chilling in fiction.

Read it and creep.


  1. I think its too bad books are pigeonholed and categorized as men's or women's reading. I think the promotion probably turns off as many readers as it attracts.

  2. I haven't read this yet, though my wife has and (mostly) enjoyed. I'll have to give it a look myself sometime! (And agree with Janice: Too bad that the male-female tagging of books seems to persist--both in the publishers'/publicists' minds and in the readers' too.)

  3. Leigh -- Somehow I've not gotten around to reading this one, but your column makes me realize I have to. Sounds too good to miss.

  4. Thanks, Janice and Art. One issue that’s become a national epidemic is that males no longer read. It’s not that traditional male action/adventure literature was in any way brilliant, but at least guys read. Now that genre has all but disappeared from magazine racks. Women’s literature was always popular and important and it presently comprises 70% of books sold.

    The problem starts in middle school and becomes a disease in high school. Somehow in the focus to better promote young women, we’ve left boys behind. The situation is so bad, some colleges and universities are using affirmative action programs in an attempt to balance the genders. Who would ever have guessed?

    John, you’ve usually way ahead of me in consuming books an films, but I think you’ll agree the ending delivers a shock!

  5. A Broad Abroad07 August, 2016 14:12

    I’m with Janice – dislike pigeon-holing and the term ‘chicklit’ in particular.

    Dismounting from my soapbox, on a lighter note: changing the setting from UK to US did away with the need for American sub-titles.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. A Broad Abroad07 August, 2016 14:16

    "Would that be the film setting, O Articulate One?"

    (shaking head)

  7. Oh, funny one, ABA!

    I looked up chicklit. Rhyming with Chiclet (gum), it appeared in women’s literature studies courses, although a male newspaper writer later tried to co-opt the term for his own purposes. Chicklit tends to be about female relationships and friendships. Males, if any, appear as secondary characters. Chicklit heroines tend to be 20-30-something, single, heterosexual, and urban. Prime examples: Bridget Jones's Diary and Sex and the City.

    The novel is much more interesting than the explanation. Thanks, ABA.

  8. I would have to agree with Tara, Art's wife, I mostly enjoyed "The Girl on the Train." But I did have some issues that I won't go into here as I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it. That said, I agree with you on how Paula Hawkins gets into the heads of the characters and takes you along for the ride. And, despite some issues with the book I'm very much looking forward to the movie.

  9. Thanks, Paul. It will be interesting how they bring it to the screen.


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