The Girl on the Train tells the story through the eyes of its three female protagonists, Rachel, Megan and Anna, and how their lives are so inextricably linked. It's a suspense thriller that takes the reader through a multitude of emotions like happiness, distress, anger, empathy, among many others. Let's take a closer look at the story line and my personal impressions about it.
An important daily ritual in the-girl-on-the-train-Rachel's life, is to peer through the window at the neighbourhood where she used to live with her ex-husband, as her train invariably slows down or stops as it gets there. Soon enough, she finds herself drawn to the lives of two strangers, whom she nick-names, Jess and Jason (who in reality are Megan and Scott). Looking at them from a distance, Rachel peers into their lives as if she's watching a movie. In her imaginary world, Jason and Jess are these extra-ordinary people - happy, content and madly in love. In fact, Rachel derives a lot of happiness from this exercise, especially because she feels that Jess is a happier version of herself.
As a previous resident of the place (with her ex-husband Tom), it doesn't come off as a surprise that Rachel is interested in the lives of its inhabitants. But she is particularly not happy that Tom and his new wife Anna, along with their 3-year old daughter, still live in the house that she and Tom purchased together. While Tom was the one who cheated on Rachel with Anna, the break-up had led her on a downward spiral, and she is now an alcoholic who needs serious help.
Mean while, things are not hunky-dory in Megan's life as Rachel had been picturing it to be. Megan, after having lost her brother at a very young age, has had a rough childhood. Her brother Ben, a dreamer and a kind soul, died in an accident, his skull crushed beneath the wheels of an articulated lorry, and Megan's life has never been the same ever since. Recently, after losing her job at the art gallery (the one she used to love as an arts enthusiast), she is going through a rough patch for the zillionth time! Her husband Scott's rather supportive comments befalls her as cold and curt responses. She finds herself with an utter lack of self-worth, and in a quest to redeem whatever little something is left of her self-esteem. This is when she decides to work as a nanny at Tom and Anna's house. But it doesn't take her long to realize that she is not cut out for this kind of job, and one fine morning, she quits. Scott, after multiple attempts at trying to uplift her spirit, finally resigns to the fact that there is nothing much he can do about it and suggests that Megan sees a therapist.
The rather normal lives of these women suddenly start to collide when one day Rachel witnesses something shocking from the train. From this point on, the rather unapologetically-slow story suddenly takes a U-turn and makes way for some interesting events. Megan's sudden disappearance drives Rachel crazy and she feels betrayed. But did she really have to get involved, even when she didn't know Megan or her husband personally, even when she was just a girl on the train, a silent observer from far away? Can you imagine getting involved in a stranger's life to such an extent that you don't mind putting your own life in jeopardy just to help them? You and I wouldn't have done it. But Megan is different, that's why despite the fact that there were so many people on the train, she is 'the' girl on the train - the only girl that mattered. In fact, without Rachel's involvement, the mystery of Megan's disappearance would never have been solved. The rest of the story revolves around Megan's struggles as she compulsively tries to get to the bottom of it. The story does end on a positive note, but not along the expected lines.
In a world where people are losing touch with emotions like empathy, good will etc., I think Paula was trying to tell us that there is nothing wrong with being 'the girl on the train'. Paula's experience as a journalist has definitely helped her carve out the context of the story really well. When the characters have so many interconnections, the author needs to be careful about painting a vivid picture without confusing the readers. This is something that Paula has done brilliantly in the book. An astute reader can realize that the story is set from the perspectives of three different women (not sure if that was intentional or just happened as part of the flow). This gives me a sense that Paula wanted to portray the lives of women. Different women, with similar problems like insecurity, confusion, utter despair, family issues! Without generalising, I want to point out that this is a common theme across the lives of many women. If you look closely, I'm sure the stories of these three women would sound familiar, as if we've seen it through our own lens or through the eyes of our friends, families or colleagues. It feels as if they are a part of us, probably a forgotten past!
As a woman, I do feel empathetic towards the protagonists. I feel for them! But as a reader, I'm not without my qualms:
I have to mention that felt that the story was a bit dragging at times, especially the opening where we were just getting to know Rachel. Her life is portrayed as pretty boring, and not many details apart from her train journey and what she sees outside the window. Endless notes just alternate between Rachel's morning and evening train journeys. Truth be told, it did get a bit monotonous after a while!
The second distraction I felt is this: The story starts with Rachel's morning and evening train journey notes. Once Megan's notes also starts pouring in, it becomes really difficult to keep track of the timeline! If you read the book, Gone Girl, you'll understand the ingenuity of Gillian Flynn as she manages the timeline masterfully - there could be no confusion around what happened when. On the contrary, the dates on 'The Girl on the Train' is all over the place. Paula would've intended to use the dates to chalk out the events with precision in the minds of the readers, but I think it created more confusion than contentment. As for me, I was often turning back the pages to check what the previous date was, and the date before that, and the one before that!
Thirdly, even though there are 3 female characters in the story, it was quite difficult for me to connect with any of them on a personal level. This is something I feel Paula could have managed better. Usually, the reader falls in love with one of the characters and ends up reading the book mainly to be a part of the character's life. I couldn't develop that sort of intimacy with any of the characters in this book. To start with, Rachel's life is pretty boring - she's an alcoholic who is adept at creating problems to everyone around her. For example, Rachel who stays with her friend Cathy, ends up making her life so difficult that at one point Cathy is forced to evict her. On other occasions, Rachel constantly calls up Tom in an attempt to get his sympathy and probably break up his family. Rachel hates the fact that Anna is still living in her house, surrounded by the furniture she bought, and sleeping in the bed that she shared with Tom for years! On the other hand, while Tom still has some sympathy for Rachel, Anna is completely frustrated with her constant drunken phone calls, emails and visits! But somehow, I cannot bring myself to like Anna as well. Rachel and Anna are clearly insecure about each other's presence in Tom's life, and Anna is no less than a maniac. She constantly tries to find faults with Rachel, and intentionally creates fissures between Rachel and Tom. She maintains a file full of evidences, sometimes saving even the smallest evidence against Rachel, in an attempt to implicate her when time comes. As a matter of fact, I found it pretty difficult to love both these characters. I understood them, but I don't love them.
Then we come to Megan's quirks. After Megan starts visiting her therapist Dr Kamal Abdic on her husband's suggestion, she slowly starts having an affair with him. While Kamal tries to resist it in the beginning, Megan is adamant. The relationship does have a positive impact on her mental health, but it is definitely not justifiable. As the story progresses, we also get to hear about how Megan once accidentally killed her own child (she slept off while in the bathtub with the baby and the baby just slipped off head first into the water!). And instead of reporting it to the police, she (and her husband) ends up burying the child's dead body near the house. As a woman and a wanna be mother, I just cannot justify or support her actions on any level.
My lack of intimacy with all three of the characters did make me feel that reading this book was a chore. Like I mentioned, if the reader doesn't have an emotional connect with any of the characters, it's difficult to keep the engagement level going.
I should also mention that it was a bad idea to read this book right after reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, because there are far too many points of comparison between the two and it's not helping. As an unbiased reader, I am not very happy with the book. It has some amount of suspense, but there is nothing new about the story line. In addition, the characters are not endearing, and the delivery is not captivating either. I would say, it's just average in terms of creativity and appeal. I did like the ending though; it was a fitting end to a murder story. That's when you start liking Rachel and Anna; it's a pity that when you finally start liking them, the story ends.
As I conclude, I ask myself the question: do I want to be the girl on the train?, and I say, 'Absolutely! I'd love to'. But on a deeper level, I don't want to; it's too much of trouble, requires a lot of effort, and I definitely don't want to make my life so complicated. Think about the (sickening) situation where the stream of people surrounding an accident site are busy clicking pictures and videos, rather than actually helping the victims. Humanity stooping to that level is a clear indication that we are slowly evolving into emotionless creatures. And guess what, we always console ourselves by saying, 'Who has the time?'. It is a cringe-worthy feeling if you think about it that way, which is why I want to applaud Paula's attempt at reawakening that girl within us, and telling us that it's okay to be that girl.
P.S: 'Gone Girl' is definitely far better on so many levels, but this doesn't necessarily mean that The Girl on the Train is a bad book. All I'm saying is that it is not comparable to some of the best books in the same category of crime thrillers.