This seems to be the era of buzzy fiction thrillers with very dysfunctional characters and wild plot twists. Gone Girl, written in 2012 by Gillian Flynn and released last year as a movie, started the trend with the crazy story of Nick and his “missing” wife Amy. The Dinner, a 2013 book by Herman Koch about two couples in denial about a terrible crime committed by their sons, is another one. Told by untrustworthy narrators, with whole chapters that you later realize were distorted if not outright lies, the reader is unsure what to believe for most of the book. Yet, you keep reading, even though the main characters are kind of jerks, because you just HAVE to know what’s going on. And when you finish the book, usually after a series of late nights staying up reading into the wee hours or long days of not putting down the book except to use the bathroom, you’re haunted and maybe a little disturbed.
The Girl on the Train is a similarly messed-up book. In some ways, the comparisons to Gone Girl have created a huge fan base for this 2014 book. But in other ways, the hype has hurt, with some readers feeling that The Girl on the Train was a letdown after Gone Girl shattered expectations as well as norms of the fiction genre. I am not one of those readers. I loved both books, even as I loathed some of the characters. As I read The Girl on the Train, I ignored chores around the house, work I had brought home, even my poor daughter’s pleas for attention just so I could race to the end (Worst. Mother. Ever).
Rachel, a divorced alcoholic, fills the void in her life by imagining the lives of the people she sees outside her train window. When something terrible happens, she’s not sure what she’s seen and what she’s done, and the reader struggles along with her to piece things together. The puzzle gets even more jumbled when the author writes from the point of view of two other characters: Anna, who is the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, and Megan, one of the people she’d been observing whose disappearance Rachel is trying to unravel.
About three-quarters through the book, I got a sense of what was really going on and I had to go back and re-read some earlier parts. I spotted the author’s trickery then and thought it was pretty clever. The comparisons to Gone Girl are apt: very flawed characters that you are drawn to even though you don’t like them, a plot that seems to be one thing but turns out to be something else. And like Gone Girl, after I finished reading, I couldn’t exactly say it was a pleasant experience. But I did enjoy it, the way I enjoy the the combination of fear, disgust and thrill I get from riding a roller coaster. It turned my stomach at times, but it also got my pulse racing.