Book Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Spoiler Alert: While no major reveals are made in this post, some content may be considered spoilers. If you have yet to read The Girl on the Train, proceed with caution.

As a new comer to the psychological thriller genre, I found myself absolutely engrossed in The Girl on the Train, a book that made me ask myself on more than one occasion, “How have I spent the 25 years I’ve known how to read NOT reading this genre?!”

Paula Hawkins’s twisting, fast-paced story and uncomfortably complex characters captured my attention from page one and kept me engaged on the the edge of my seat throughout the rest of the high speed ride. To quote a review from the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “The novel gets harder and harder to put down as the story screeches toward its unexpected ending.”

Once I slipped past the halfway point, I really did find it harder to put this book down. The night I finished, my usual thirty minute bedtime reading window stretched to an hour, then another thirty minutes. Normally when I read before bed, the overwhelming power of sleep forces me to put a book down and succumb to my drooping eyelids and nodding head. Yet, I had to force myself to put down The Girl on the Train and will my brain to fall asleep—a unique chain of events that only happens when I’m completely sucked into the dramatic world of a gripping page-turner.

And when my cat meowed me awake at 3:00 a.m., per usual, I welcomed the opportunity to wake up and finish The Girl on the Train over the next half hour.

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In addition to its captivating story full of love, lies, betrayal, mystery, and plenty of unexpected twists and turns to keep readers on their toes, The Girl on the Train features an array of complex characters, particularly the story’s two female leads: Rachel and Megan.

Chicago elevated train with skyscraper backdrop
Photo by Sawyer Bengtson on Unsplash

Rachel, the book’s protagonist, is not your typical central character. She’s not someone that readers—or at least this reader—immediately connect with or root for, if they ever do. She actually made me feel uncomfortable and, at times, disappointed and disgusted by her actions.

I expressed this discomfort and distaste to my boyfriend while I was reading one of Rachel’s particularly unflattering scenes—the one where she wakes up to a bloody wound on her head and the scent of her urine-soaked underwear, then vomits on the stairs without cleaning up before her roommate comes home.

His response? “Good.”

I think that was the moment that I stopped judging Rachel and tried to understand her. As my judgements faded and Rachel’s history unfolded, my distaste rapidly melted into empathy. Rachel was no longer the crazy, obsessive, violent, selfish, emotionally neglectful alcoholic Hawkins seemingly painted her to be. There’s a hidden side to her story that reveals grief, betrayal, and a violent underbelly in her previous marriage—all of which ruthlessly injected these traits into her. While Rachel does carry some responsibility in a lot of her actions—she turned to alcohol after finding out she couldn’t have children and before her marriage began to dissolve into violence and betrayal—the circumstances that lead her to these behaviors shed a new light on how she got to that point.

Passing subway train
Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

Hawkins’s ability to build empathy for an initially undesirable, rough-around-the-edges central character is impressive and a big part of what makes The Girl on the Train so enticing.

Hawkins creates a similar character arc for Megan. When she first goes missing, it’s easy to see her purely as a victim, especially since we don’t know much about her yet. But Rachel regularly reminds us of her imperfections—that she was cheating on her seemingly perfect and loving husband.

While I never felt as uncomfortable with Megan’s character as with Rachel’s character, my sympathy for Megan came in ebbs and flows. Megan ultimately gained my full empathy as her history came to light.

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Before I wrap up my review, can we talk about the book cover for a minute?

Though a book cover can certainly be what initially attracts me to a book, I don’t usually give much thought to it beyond that. But every time I sat down to read The Girl on the Train, I found myself admiringly mesmerized by the cover.

Blurred scenery from the window of a moving train is an obvious choice. Used alone, that image wouldn’t have continuously caught my eye. It’s the the typography that really makes this cover come alive. The designer didn’t just give the words movement—he or she gave each individual letter its own unique movement. Some letters completely double, some slightly stretch, some remain completely immobile.

I love and appreciate that kind of detail in the cover design. It not only creates the feel of being on a speeding train but reflects the speeding pace of the story itself. I think it goes even deeper than that by reflecting the bleary vision of one too many drinks and the confusion Rachel feels in trying to turn her blurred memories into a clear picture.

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If you are looking for a quick read to squeeze into your summer reading list and are as late to the game as I am when it comes to reading this 2015 psychological thriller, I highly recommend The Girl on the Train. The complex characters will challenge your ability to withhold judgment and find empathy while unexpected twists will have you clinging to every page. The fast-paced story quickly gains momentum as suspense builds to a shocking climax you won’t see coming. A couple of hours by the pool are all you’ll need to race your way through this one, making it the perfect vacation read.

After reading The Girl on the Train, I think it’s safe to say I’m officially a fan of the thriller book genre. Any recommendations?

 

*Featured photo by Sawyer Bengtson on Unsplash

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