This is, thank goodness, an era of complex and mighty female characters. In books like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”, Kimberly McCreight’s “Reconstructing Amelia”, and Rosamund Lupton’s “Sister” and in TV shows such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Homeland,” men are not the only characters allowed to seethe and rage and avenge. Paula Hawkins’s fast-paced debut thriller, “The Girl on the Train” tells the intertwining stories of three such women squirming beneath the skin of their airless lives.
The book alternates among the three women’s stories, but Rachel, reeling from her divorce, is our primary narrator. Each morning during her commute from a suburb into London, her train slows on a worn section of track just behind the same row of Victorian homes. Two most interest her: one the home of an attractive, perfect-seeming couple who frequently appear on their back terrace; the second is her former address and the current home of her ex-husband, Tom, and his new wife, Anna.
Rachel, who now shares a flat with a tiresome friend from university and spends her evenings with bottles of premixed liquor and wine, has only her married past and her imagination to sustain her now. Predictably, she latches onto the idealized couple, Megan and Scott, and imagines rich identities for them: “They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.” We feel the motor pushing along the story, the red herrings being slipped into place, but these are not unpleasant sensations.
Meanwhile, inside the walls of their Victorian home, Megan’s life with Scott is, in fact, anything but perfect. Megan has grown alternately numb and enraged in the face of her empty days and controlling husband. After a brief attempt at employment, she strays from Scott, manipulating the men she encounters, exerting power over them just because she can. In the past, her beauty has allowed her to hook various men, but they have only left her disillusioned and impotent, and she’s beginning to think that little has changed.
Inside her home, Anna, by contrast, is giddy with her newish husband and baby daughter, but only for now. Anna outwardly resembles her neighbor, Megan, but begins to sense that her looks — and her happy marriage — may not be enough. At home alone with her baby each day, with her husband’s ex-wife, Rachel turning up more frequently in the neighborhood, Anna senses her own moorings loosen.
On the train one day, Rachel sees Megan on her patio kissing an unknown man. The next day, Megan’s disappearance is announced on the news. Rachel jumps into the case head-first, offering herself to the police as a potential witness and to Scott as an ally, but given her overt alcoholism and frequent lies about her life, comes to seem to the police and Scott like an unreliable narrator. Conveniently, on the night that Megan went missing, Rachel happened to have been drunk, possibly stalking her ex-husband and his new family, and now has a crime-sized hole in her memory.
Like its train, the story blasts through the stagnation of these lives in suburban London and the reader cannot help but turn pages. But there is a promise in the first half of the book of something deeper at work. Rachel, whose infertility upended her marriage, speaks to a poignant and real sense of futility for many women once their assumptions about the future have proved impossible: “[L]et’s be honest: women are still only really valued for two things — their looks and their roles as mothers. I’m not beautiful, and I can’t have kids, so what does that make me? Worthless.”
Megan’s character too is an intriguing anti-heroine, a woman whose sadness over past losses has become crusted over with anger and the urge to manipulate. Some of the strongest passages are when these two women are allowed to stop and think, to try to understand their own dilemmas and the ensuing ramifications, rather than being shoved forward along the tracks of the sleek plot. Here and there, especially as the book progresses, one craves to see and hear them as the distinct, recognizable women they are, rather than the types that they increasingly become.
Still, the welcome echoes of “Rear Window” throughout the story and its propulsive narrative make “The Girl on the Train” an absorbing read. Hawkins emphasizes the parallels among these three ostensibly different women, and we close the book with the knowledge that they share — as we might — unexpected affinities with people they pass by each day, those who they see but will never truly know.
Heidi Pitlor is the series editor of Best American Short Stories. Her second novel, “The Daylight Marriage” will be published in May.