Not shown: The Girl.
  • Not shown: The Girl.

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Art is always influenced by other art. So understand that I'm not being dismissive when I suggest that Paula Hawkins's novel The Girl on the Train would probably look very different if we lived in a world where Gillian Flynn hadn't published Gone Girl. With its unreliable narrator and its fastidious deconstruction of happy marriages, Train seems to borrow much of its worldview from Flynn's novel. It's possible Hawkins has never read Gone Girl, but I'd be surprised if it were true. Even if Hawkins had never heard of Gone Girl, her publisher is doing its damnedest to sell the book as the successor to Gone Girl. And for the most part, the advertising campaign is working—googling "Gone Girl" and "The Girl on the Train" yields a ton of articles with headlines like "'The Girl on the Train': Is it the next 'Gone Girl'?" and "Not the next 'Gone Girl': Why 'The Girl on the Train' can’t fill Amazing Amy’s shoes." Like the last headline suggests, Train doesn't wear the comparison well, but it's not without its charms.

Train is the story of Rachel, a barely functional alcoholic who takes the train into London every day. Rachel becomes obsessed with a young, attractive married couple she spots on her commute. Every day, she looks into their home and envies their domestic lifestyle. Rachel eventually builds up an elaborate fantasy about what their life must be like, granting them all the joy and stability she has never known. But soon that fantasy unravels—Rachel spots evidence of an affair, and then half the couple seems to disappear entirely. Nobody believes Rachel, so she decides to investigate the disappearance herself. (Yes, it's a Rear Window riff, too.)

As she gets closer and closer to the couple she's been spying on for so long, Rachel gradually unveils her own life story to the reader. Hawkins excels at describing Rachel's battle with addiction—she gradually exchanges her need for another drink with a need to understand the truth behind the mystery—but the twists and turns Train takes never feel as convincing as the pulpy plot twists in Gone Girl. If you're looking for a fast thriller to inject a little energy into your winter reading life, Train is decent enough. If you're looking to be wowed by a first-rate literary thriller, you'll have to look elsewhere.