There’s a book every year that seems ubiquitous. A few years ago, before e-readers were a thing, it was said that you could leapfrog across the beach on all the copies of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo without hitting the ground. More recently, it was Gone Girl and 50 Shades of Grey. Publishers are always trying to figure out the magic formula for a hit in a business that is struggling to stay profitable.
They’ve found unlikely success in the form of an unknown British author Paula Hawkins and The Girl on the Train. If you pay any attention to books at all, you’ve probably heard of it, but you’ve likely never heard of the author before. Hawkins has no name recognition – previously a business writer, she has one financial advice book published under her own name, as well as a series of chick lit flops under the pseudonym Amy Silver. So how did this novel debut at the top of bestseller lists in January, and remain there ever since, selling over 2 million copies in under 4 months? More impressively, how did the publisher manage to sell the movie rights to DreamWorks months before the book was even released? Usually new authors gain popularity by slow burn – the book garners positive reviews, gradually builds momentum with word of mouth, and eventually snowballs to its peak. The Girl on the Train, instead, came out like a rocket, a testament to the potent influence of marketing. Riverhead was confident that they had the next Gone Girl, and they marketed it as such, giving away free copies to prominent reviewers on Amazon and GoodReads, and getting it in the hands of celebrities to generate plenty of pre-release buzz.
Many books have been billed as the next Gone Girl, though The Girl on the Train has been the first to achieve similar sales, along with similarities in the title and premise. But The Girl on the Train is no Gone Girl. The beauty of Gone Girl was Gillian Flynn’s ability to turn the typical missing woman story on its head, with a mind bending twist that no one saw coming, along with keen insights such as the “cool girl” phenomenon that put a name to something many women were already thinking.
The Girl on the Train, on the other hand, is more of a typical suspense novel, with predictable twists. It tells the story of Rachel, a woman destroyed by alcoholism, whose main form of entertainment (besides drinking) is people-watching while she rides the train back and forth to London. In particular, she focuses on a young couple who live in her old neighborhood, who appear to have the domestic bliss that she always imagined for herself. Then one day she sees the wife kissing another man on the balcony, shattering her fantasy. Two days later, Rachel discovers that the woman she’s been watching, Megan Hipwell, has gone missing. The night of her disappearance, Rachel remembers getting off the train at the stop near Megan’s house. Unfortunately, she was so drunk that the memory of what happened that night is a complete blank space. Convinced that she holds information vital to the case, Rachel begins to meddle in the investigation.
The book switches perspectives between Rachel, Megan (pre-disappearance), and Anna, the woman Rachel’s ex-husband left her for. None of the women is particularly appealing or likeable, and Anna in particular is shallowly developed, but her viewpoint is needed to move the narrative along. Rachel is somewhat sympathetic, but her constant stupid decision making is frustrating to read.
The measure of a great book, for me, is a book that compels me to read every time I get a spare 15 minutes. A book that I’m always sneaking back to, a book that blocks out all other forms of entertainment, that coerces me to ignore the siren song of the internet and forgo television. I’m sorry to say, The Girl on the Train was not that kind of book. It was good enough, light and mildly interesting, but my main impetus for finishing it quickly was the fact that I had to return it to the library. It’s not a bad book, but it isn’t groundbreaking or memorable. I understand the impulse to partake in a cultural phenomenon, to experience what everyone else is talking about, so I’m not going to say don’t read it. But don’t expect The Girl on the Train to live up to the hype.