The Girl on the Train is a read-in-one-sitting thriller from the perspectives of three women in each others’ orbits. They’re all flawed-to-unlikeable, but somehow still sympathetic, which is a nice balancing act and the result of some skillful writing. Overall, the whole book is successful on so many levels, from being an enticing character study, to a fast-paced, compelling mystery.
Have you seen that Donald Glover sketch about crazy women stories vs crazy man stories? If you haven’t, I recommend you watch it, but if you can’t, here’s the money quote:
“I realized like…every man, every man in this room has a crazy woman story, you know? Like every man in here is just like, ‘Oh, remember Christine? Christine was crazy! Christine was so crazy! Remember when I had my new girl and Christine comes up like, ‘Where that bitch at?!’ And I was like, ‘Christine, what’s goin’ on? I got my new girl, get out of here!’ Christine was crazy, right? Christine was crazy. Aww…memories.
You know, and every dude in here has that story. And I was like, why don’t women have crazy men stories? Why don’t women have crazy men stories? I don’t really hear them. And then I realized and I was like, OH. It’s because if you have a crazy boyfriend…you gon’ die.”
And that more or less describes this book. Every one of the three female protagonists is the type that some guy, somewhere — probably many guys — would call a “crazy bitch,” for various reasons. And they’re all varying levels of “crazy,” but if you’re a woman you know: all it takes is one tic, one anxiety, one less than serene behavior, and that’s all you need for some guys (and women!) out there to take you less than seriously. And worse, the “crazier” you are, the easier it is for an even crazier man to get away with manipulation, abuse, and murder. This book is fiction, hyperbole, but it’s also truth.
First, we meet Rachel. She’s a depressed alcoholic who is still hung up on her ex-husband, and she rides the same train every day from her home to a job in London that she was fired from months before, just so that she can ride by her old house that she shared with him. Reading her earliest chapters is an ongoing exercise in fremdschämen: with every drink, and every “good idea,” you’re shouting at her, “Rachel, NO!” It’s one of these “good ideas” that gets her wrapped up in the disappearance of Megan Hipwell, a woman who lives down the street from Rachel’s old house with her husband, Scott Hipwell. Before her disappearance, though, Rachel had also been watching Megan and Scott from the train — calling them Jess and Jason — and fantasizing about what appeared to be their perfect marriage. It’s this obsession with them, as well as a coincidental proximity to the neighborhood around the time that Megan goes missing, that causes Rachel to involve herself, thinking she can help.
Then, we get into Megan’s mind, first in chapters that begin approximately a year or so before Rachel’s chapters and the disappearance. Though not formally diagnosed, Megan is probably something of a manic depressive. A former addict with a few darker demons, Megan is mostly happy with Scott, but nonetheless begins to feel stifled over time by his love. The more overbearing he seems to her, the more she tries to draw away, and the harder he tries to bring her back in. She self-medicates with infidelity, some of which Scott is aware of, and that doesn’t help his hovering, as he’s constantly wondering if Megan is distant because she’s having an affair, or if she’s just withdrawn. Reading these chapters sets up the context to her eventual disappearance and paints a stark contrast to the perfect woman painting Rachel initially creates of her,
Finally, we meet Anna. She’s the current wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom. You’re mostly sympathetic to her, because you already know that Rachel hangs around, calls and emails Tom all the time, and is generally still a semi-threatening presence that the family can’t seem to shake. Still, the other thing you know about Anna is that she was the “other woman” when Tom began cheating on Rachel. Until you read her perspective, your feelings about her are entirely formed by your personal feelings about “the other woman,” but at the very least, you understand why Rachel resents her (if not why Rachel still stalks her family.)
To say too much more is potentially giving clues away. There is an argument to be made for all of these people and more, at some point, to be responsible for Megan’s disappearance, and the story skillfully unravels what happened while exploring the dark psychology of failed (and doomed) relationships and the emotional toll they take. Everyone is saying this book is the spiritual successor to Gone Girl, and while I hate to be the umpteenth person to make that comparison, it’s pretty true. Arguably, this one had the more satisfying ending, though, if you were a Gone Girl reader put off from reading this book by the conclusion of the other. All in all, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.