None of the women featured in Paula Hawkins’ thriller The Girl on the Train are particularly likable. Rachel, the main character, is a drunk. Anna stole Rachel’s husband. Megan has panic attacks and sleeps around. Their careers aren't particularly important to them, but they feel incomplete without a man (or men) in their life. And those men aren’t peaches either.
Hawkins’ choice of narrative style also gave me pause. Each of the women tells their part of the story in first-person present-tense, delivered via excerpts stamped with dates and time of day (usually “morning” or “evening”). The passages almost read like journal entries, or extended anecdotes relayed to a camera or transcriber, but they’re meant to describe what’s happening in real-time. For one character, this wouldn’t have strained credulity too far. But when we head hop in this style between three characters, the seams start to show, especially when Hawkins shuffles the chronology.
So why couldn’t I put this book down?
Because Hawkins keeps the pacing taut, while still finding time to tell us enough about the characters to make us feel sorry for (most of) them, and even root for them to get their acts together. It’s skillfully done.
Does this make The Girl on the Train great literature? No. But it doesn’t need to be—thrillers aren’t expected to make us reexamine our outlook on life or impart a weighty lesson. They just need to entertain. And Hawkins’ latest novel does that in spades.