Everyone seems to be abuzz about Paula Hawkins’ book The Girl on the Train. It’s a New York Times bestseller, and all-around popular book. It has been on my to-read list for a while and I finally got around to reading it. I want to talk about my thoughts on this book and what I did and did not like. Because this is a “discussion” and not a review, spoilers full steam ahead.
I’m not great at explaining plots, but I will do my best to give a brief overview of the storyline. The book follows the perspectives of three women: Rachel, Megan, and Anna, bouncing back and forth through the timeline around the “disappearance” of Megan. Rachel, an unemployed alcoholic takes the train every day and watches the house she used to live in with her now ex-husband and the neighbors around it. She sees Megan and her husband Scott in the house down the street from where she used to live and creates a life for them in her mind, and one day sees Megan with another man. Not long after she sees the act of infidelity, Megan goes missing. Anna is married to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom, with whom she’d had an affair before he left Rachel to start a life with her. Rachel involves herself with the investigation, although the detectives see her as unreliable because of other issues along with her alcoholism. Still, she continues to seek contact with Megan’s husband and others involved in the case. Through the perspectives we finally learn what happened to Megan and how all of their stories intertwine.
Recently I’ve been binge-listening to the podcast Literary Disco and in one of their episodes they discussed the question “What is more important? Good characters, or good plot?” This book to me is a perfect example of a book with great plot but awful characters. I felt as though the characters didn’t have any separation between them. All three women have basic names, which was annoying enough as a reader. Beyond that, all three of them suffer from acting out sexually, yet having a problem with a male character having an affair. They struggle with dependency on alcohol and are all three emotionally unstable because of the circumstances they find themselves in throughout their lives. The husbands, too, are very similar in character. Though Scott is not as extreme as Tom, they are both emotionally and physically abusive to the women in their lives. Because of the lack of diversity in their characters, it took me much longer to read the book than the plot lead me to.
The plot itself was very engaging. I was so interested in finding out who had killed Megan that I wanted to devour the book. It was only the uninteresting characters that had me putting the book down because I got bored so easily by the flatness of the characters copied three times. Had the plot been weak, I would have put the book down permanently. Having a good story can make up for any bad character, and I’m not sure a great character can defend a weak plot.
The way these female characters thought about their desire to be desired bothered me on a personal level. Both Anna and Megan glow in the fact that Tom would have an affair with them. The fact that they were each able to seduce him made them feel so powerful. Megan also finds herself in the bed of her therapist and makes her friend cover for her throughout her affairs. Scott, while he is also manipulative in their relationship, has every right to be suspicious of his wife. She gloats to herself that she is found attractive by other men and desires that feeling. While it doesn’t seem like the sexual aspect of her and Scott’s relationship is lacking, she is unhappy being tied down to him, I guess, and acts out when her thirst for sexual gratification isn’t met. In Megan’s situation, it does seem to be more of a psychological disorder that leads her to her sexual impulses and infidelity (and ultimately her death).
Anna’s story is slightly different. She and Tom met when he was still married to Rachel and they began a sexual relationship. Anna bragged to Rachel later in the book about all the times Tom was with her instead and has zero regret for tearing up the marriage. While Rachel had driven a wedge between herself and Tom because of her alcoholism and depression, Anna feels no guilt for the part she played in the divorce. She loved being a mistress that won. She’s proud of herself. At the end, karma hits her hard as she finds out about the man Tom truly is.
Rachel doesn’t act out quite as much as the other two, her struggle is with alcohol more than sex. However, she does somehow find Scott in a bad moment after Megan’s death and they spend the night together. In that situation, it was clearly a mistake and both parties realize their tryst was wrong given the circumstances.
Recently, many of the books I’ve read have aspects of infidelity to them; some more than others. In those books, it serves a purpose and has a reason for being in the story. While the topic upsets me greatly, I can understand it in instances like Among the Ten Thousand Things, where the affair has already happened and the entire premise is about the family learning to live with the consequences, and Life After Life, where it shows one of the various life paths Ursula ends up in because of past choices. In The Girl on the Train, I felt like the crazy sex triangle was too much and too easy a plot device for the mystery. And again, it also made Megan and Anna much too similar characters in their composition.
The buildup of the mystery was so good. The majority of the book was full of story and information about the murder that kept me reading to finally know what happened. All the way until about the last fifty pages it was all buildup. Suddenly it turned into a dramatic action movie with supervillain monologuing and I was almost disappointed in the ending. I wasn’t surprised at all, but I was let down that we learned that Tom killed Megan in the way we did. I wish it had all been from her perspective and not told from Tom at all. The entire ending was much more cinematic than literary in my opinion. I guess that’s good since the film is being released in October of this year.
Overall, I liked the book. If I’m not feeling a book, I don’t finish it. But as a thriller, the buildup was more exciting than the conclusion. I gave the book 3/5 stars for the poor character development and undesirable level of women thinking they’re cool for seducing married/professional men. Had the characters been more diverse, I could have easily given this book a higher rating. While I wish I had loved the book more than I did, I am grateful for not having spent money on it. I would recommend this book if you’re looking for a fun poolside read, but I’ve read better.