This is easily amongst the best debut novels I have ever read. The story was taunt, the characters deep and developed and the mystery and suspense had me guessing from start to finish. Regardless of the fact that it was an incredibly polished first novel, this book would have received 5 stars if it was the 1st or 15th book by this author. While this is one of the best books I have read this year, it will not be for everyone. It does bear similarities to several other “buzzy” books over the past couple of years. Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep are the first two that come to mind. Since I haven’t yet posted those reviews, I can tell you that I loved Gone Girl and hated Before I Go to Sleep. If you liked one of the two aforementioned novels, you will probably enjoy this one.
The story is told from the perspective of three different characters. Rachel, the girl on the train, Anna, the wife of the Divorcee and Megan, the missing wife. The story opens with Rachel on the train and her daily commute into the city. Deeply unhappy as a result of a broken relationship and struggling with addiction, she finds herself creating an idealized narrative based on her observations of a husband and wife she sees daily outside the window of her train car. Her fantasy narrative is shattered when she notices changes at the home and the woman, through whom she was living vicariously, goes missing. Rachael realizes that on the night the Megan goes missing, she had been in that neighbourhood, drunk and disoriented and left with vague memories. Are these memories keys to solving Meagan’s disappearance. The plot intricately weaves the complex narratives of these three women and the three men in their lives. One of these six has committed a crime but their narratives are so closely entwined that you will believe each one of them is the guilty party.
This book has received plenty of buzz and has continually been referred to as the “next Gone Girl . In some ways this is a fair comparison. Both books have generally unlikable characters, intense human drama, crime, passion, neurosis, unreliable narrators, multiple perspectives of the same events and provide and intense study of the characters. I think it is fair to suggest that if you did not like Gone Girl you are unlikely to enjoy this novel. That said, this is not is not the little sister to Gone Girl and while each character is unlikeable in some way, some of elements of their personality leave room for sympathy. While the former may have attributed to the success of the latter, it tells a far more complex tale and provides a more compelling mystery.
While there is little to like about each of the 6 major characters – Rachel, Megan, Anna, Scott, Tom and Kamal – they do retain some positive qualities despite the fact that each of them can serve as poster children for one or more of each of the Seven Deadly Sins. Often times, unlikable characters will drag a story down if it is not mitigated. In my opinion, the mitigating factor in this book is the intense character study of each of the three women. Their perspectives of the events were intensely clouded by their own failings, shortcomings and addictions. Each character was so expertly crafted that you began to understand their motivations even if you didn’t agree with them. In my opinion, insight into a character is far more important than liking the character. Personally, I find the best and most compelling novels are those that focus on the characters and their development. This is one of the best examples of this in recent memory. While the actions and attitudes of the characters are distasteful, immoral and selfish, their motivations are explored but never excused. The book doesn’t ask you to like the characters or approve of their actions. It doesn’t ask you to share their perspective or accept their actions but does provide you the opportunity to understand the minds that propel the characters. Within a single page you will find yourself both intrigued and repelled, fascinated and disgusted, confused and accepting.
Given the clouded perspectives, the narration tends to be unreliable. Rachel is unable to rely on her own memory at the best of times. Add in memories shrouded by a blackout and the reader is often unsure of what to believe. While this could have resulted in much frustration, the author provided a vein of reliable narration from Megan which serves to stabilize the whole novel.
The Girl on the Train is a wonderful example of compelling mystery and complex character development. Chances are that you will not say “Aha! I knew it was “_________” all along” but rather, “I though it could have been him/her”. While in Gone Girl the mystery played second fiddle to the characters, Girl on the Train uses the mystery as a vital element in the development of each character. Truly one of the best books I have read this year.
I listened to audiobook version of the novel. Each of the women had their own narrator and each narrator did a wonderful job. The narrator that voiced Rachel was especially good at infusing emotion into her voice. This book is tailor-made for the audiobook format.