“The Girl on the Train,” the third novel by British author Paula Hawkins, has become one of the decade’s best-selling books. The smash-hit, high-concept thriller novel that took the public by storm is now a major motion picture, and millions more are going to experience a version of Hawkins’ work in the theatre.
Rachel Watson, an alcoholic in her early 30s, commutes on a train every day to London, and from that train she consistently sees a young man and woman in their backyard. This couple is, in Rachel’s mind, perfectly happy and deep in love. She conjures up individual names for the couple and creates an entire backstory in her mind about who they are and what they do.
One morning, as the train passes by the couple’s house, Rachel thinks she sees something amiss. What she sees haunts her, and she finally decides to investigate the incident. The novel escalates until Rachel is involved in a story of murder, infidelity and deceit.
The book’s premise sounds exciting, and parts of it are. As a whole, however, “The Girl on the Train” is a best-selling book with sales that reflect quantity rather than quality.
When modern literature is criticized as a whole, a common complaint is that many authors now write in a bland style, light on description and character development and heavy on dialogue and plot.
This style of writing is similar to screenplays, and therefore makes the book extremely easy to adapt to a feature film. There is no better example of a book unashamedly written for a possible movie deal than “The Girl on the Train.”
For someone who very rarely reads, the novel’s bare-bones descriptions will go unnoticed. The shortcomings of the prose make it easy to read quickly and could be mistakenly seen as an asset.
For veteran readers, though, “The Girl on the Train” doesn’t impress.
Even putting the maddeningly simple prose aside, the characters are largely uninteresting and reprehensible people. The novel switches among the perspectives of three women, each more vile and one-dimensional than the last.
The main character, Rachel Watson, is a hopelessly bland, alcoholic woman who spends much of the book wallowing in her misery, offering no real insight into causes or symptoms of alcoholism.
Hawkins seems to believe that if she makes her character wallow in her self-pity long enough, the reader will feel sorry for her and subsequently root for her. It does not work.
It’s hard to criticize the plot in a spoiler-free review, but Hawkins gives the reader red herrings that only the simplest of people would be fooled by, and it all reads like a run-of-the-mill “whodunit” novel.
This latest entry in the literary fad of sticking “girl” wherever one can in the title is not nearly as impressive as its predecessors. “Gone Girl” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” are both absolutely stellar works that will stand the test of time.
“The Girl on the Train” is here today, gone tomorrow.