When Gone Girl burst onto the scene in 2012, with its intoxicating tale of marriage gone wrong and its fist-pump-inducing rant on the Cool Girl, the stage was soon set for many future thrillers to be blurbed as “the next Gone Girl.” The Girl on the Train, a recently published literary mystery by Paula Hawkins, has been honored with such comparisons in the course of its buzzy climb to number one on the bestseller charts.
–Claire Fallon, The Huffington Post
Well, it’s a long, long train ride. And the company is pretty boring. After all, how interesting can an alcoholic be? (In this novel, her name is Rachel. She’s the “main narrator” as some excited reviewers put it.) You can feel compassion, but you don’t want to have to sit there and listen to Rachel mumble and stumble toward the revelation in a long, convoluted whodunnit plot, do you? You tend to withdraw and muse on a train ride, anyway. The lulling of clickity-clack! …How come the Pyramids and the Parthenon look so different? What a cultural range, eh? …Why is the gravest threat in History, nuclear weapons in the hands of us frails, a dilemma whose pondering in print must become more prominent?
But here, on the train in question, you’re stuck with confessional Rachel. In her boozy state, she’s lost her job in London and is divorced from Tom who has a new wife, Anna, and their child, the trio living in the same house Rachel shared with Tom. Fortified by gin and other spirits, Rachel continues her daily train commute, for it takes her past her old house. Occasionally she sees from the train window and idealizes another couple–they turn out to be “Megan” and “Scott”–living in a house in the same block. Rachel, the alcoholic voyeur, eventually glimpses from the train window Megan kissing Another Man. When Megan disappears and it becomes a tabloid event (and is later confirmed as a homicide with the discovery of Megan’s body), Rachel has begun to visit her old neighborhood on foot. In the meantime, Megan and Anna have joined Rachel as narrators and their lives are opened for inspection as well as to furnish clues helpful in finding the murderer. Whodunnit is eventually resolved. I found the journey increasingly dull.
Even though the tipsy narrator eventually gets the story straight, by that time you might just have decided never again to take a train ride unless someone interesting is going with you and will be in the seat next to you. It’s a mystery story, and you don’t mind that you will have to wait for much to be uncovered and discovered for the solution. Eventually, you’ll know that X did it. It was a matter of greed or lust or saving face or psychopathic behavior or institutional corruption. The usual. But you don’t want it to be a tale told by a narrator whose mind is, well, very troubled and unreliable, and, worst of all, clumsily babbling about too many things unrelated to the sleuthing, enough so that verisimilitude is not served and your Impatience soon trumps your Compassion. Even worse, given the mentality of Rachel, you quickly doubt that any of the other people in the tale are worth spending time with. So what if there is a killer among these stereotypes? Just leave it to the police and watch the thirty-second recap on Eyewitness News. And you would be right.
But it gets worse. With Rachel, you quickly stop succumbing to the pathetic fallacy and admit that the narrator is just a fictional person. Then you really become irritated. You finish the book because you know that despite the drudgery it is instructive to test the depths to which mysteries might fall.
Of course, you’ve been subjected to false claims: The Girl on the Train has been called a “thriller” and Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl have been mentioned in its company. Our legal system has yet to produce some badly needed laws to deter aesthetic offenses and outrageous comparisons.
So…. Philip Marlowe, Dorothy Sayers’s sleuths, and the rest of them, are always very sharp. If they drink on the job, they don’t get soused. They’re the best and soberest minds up against this bewildering experience of ours. In The Girl on the Train, it’s a confused mind up against mannequins.
And there’s no one to refund your train ticket, so you might not want to buy one in the first place.