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Pickle Me This

March 1, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the-girl-on-the-traiHere is a secret: sometimes when we say that a protagonist is unlikeable, what we really mean is that she is boring, or at least her plot is, or that as a character the protagonist fails to get up off the page, live in more than two dimensions. Which is to say that the whole “unlikeable protagonist” thing is not quite the problem that we might think it to be. It’s a shorthand for,  I couldn’t be compelled to care about this person. Which is sometimes the fault of the reader, sometimes the fault of the writer. Not every book is for everyone.

Though it seems that The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, is for an awful lot of people. Bestseller, huge hit, the latest novel to be christened “The Next Gone Girl,” which is something. I read it this weekend, and I loved it, which pleases me the way I like that I can still love hot-dogs, even though I’ve come to frequent the organic butchers. That I can still appreciate this novel, while I see plenty that’s wrong with it—some sloppy prose, a narrative structure that makes no sense, a plot that hinges on a character having a blackout. It’s no Gone Girl, which was a really solid book. But it’s just as gripping, and one thing it does better is that its unlikable protagonist is sympathetic. Gillian Flynn’s Amy was a monster, but while Paula Hawkins’ Rachel is a mess and heading fast down the stupid spiral, she’s incredibly human. We can see how she got to where she is. And its in her humanness (too much so) and not her unlikeability (because she’s that too) that being in her literary presence can be totally unbearable. But the reader persists because there’s a story here that begs to be unravelled.

Rachel travels to and from London every day from her home in the suburbs, the train stopping for a moment by a row of houses into whose back gardens she has a perfect view. She’s become fixated on one particular couple whom she sees drinking wine on their terrace, having breakfast in their kitchen, and she dreams up a whole life for them—her obsession with these people not unrelated to the fact that she’s desperately lonely and that their house is just doors away from the home she’d shared with her ex-husband until he’d dumped her for another woman with whom he now shares the house along with their baby daughter. Rachel’s marriage had broken down on account her drinking, and since her divorce, her drinking problem has escalated, plus she’s lost her job and is about to be thrown out by her flatmate.

Which means she’s not considered the most reliable witness when the woman in her fantasy couple goes missing. Rachel had spied the missing woman with another man the day before she disappears, and she feels this information must be relevant to the case. But there’s also the fact of her increasing attraction to the missing woman’s husband, plus her own ex-husband and his wife who are fast growing tired of her lurking presence outside their door.

While The Girl on the Train is worthy of the hype, in terms of being a fun read, I’d offer that Harriet Lane’s novel Her is a so much better example of the “domestic sinister” genre and more deserving of such hype. And that Lane’s novel, as well as the best parts of Hawkins’, made me think about Emily Perkins’ 2008 Novel About My Wife, which I’ve read twice and want to visit again. Wild women with mysterious pasts (where trauma lurks), disinterested husbands, suburban ennui, the perils of real estate, violence and danger. The likability of a protagonist doesn’t even register. It just matters that you care what happens next.

One thought on “The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins”

  1. Nadia says:

    Great post! I just finished Train and have to admit that I found Rachel to be beyond annoying!! So, I will probably characterize her as unlikeable. I will admit to being hooked on the book for some time and then getting rather tired of it (especially when it was OBVIOUS who killed Megan and where the book was heading). Too predictable in the end for me. I’m definitely going to kindle Her as I’ve heard so many great things about it.

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