Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Thoughts On Beach Reading and The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins


Whenever I am preparing for a vacation, my attention goes first to figuring out the best book(s) to read. I have to decide:

What to read on the plane (in this case, I read Unfamiliar Fishes)
What to read on the beach (this one!)
How many books to bring (Four + one e-book. Too many.)
How many books I will buy and have to bring back (Zero, though I did visit this fantastic bookstore!)

I was lucky that The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins arrived at the library just days before my departure to Hawaii. I had heard the buzz about this book and was so excited to have on hand what many were calling the perfect vacation read.

And in many ways, it was.

The novel follows Rachel, who rides a commuter train every day and watches a couple whose house sits alongside the tracks. One day she learns that the woman she has been watching has gone missing – and, it turns out, she might hold the key to the disappearance. The problem is, Rachel has huge gaps in her memory and is generally untrustworthy (in particular, she is drunk all the time).

There have been many comparisons between this book and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and I can definitely see that. There’s a similar collection of distasteful characters. There is quite a bit of narrator unreliability. (Bad) marriages are the key element of both books. And there’s a sense that this story could move easily from stage to big screen.

Here are the two ways in which this book fits the mold of my kind of good vacation read:

1)   It is broken into very short sections and has a fast-driving plot. The short sections facilitate breaks to dip ones toes in the ocean and opportunities to sink into the hot tub. The plot-heavy focus makes it so that the reader’s brain does not have to work very hard.

2)   It is billed as a “literary thriller,” which is mostly true. The pacing is definitely thriller-esque, but the writing is not predictable. Hawkins pulls apart and pushes together the narration and the timing in an inventive way.  I’m willing to accept the “literary” label here.  This book was easy to read, but not too light.

However, there are also a couple of ways in which The Girl On The Train might not be everyone’s glass of iced tea.

1)   The women are dumb. Rachel, especially, makes exceedingly bad decisions, over and over again. Women who make ridiculous decisions are actually part of the thriller formula, which can be irritating. I can’t even count how many mass-market thrillers I have read in which the very educated and esteemed forensic scientist decides, after the serial killer has gruesomely murdered many victims, to venture out on her own to search his apartment in the middle of the night, presumably so she can be rescued by the troubled detective with the heart of gold that she will romance as the series continues.

2)   There are quite a few contrived plot elements to move the story forward. I understand that suspending disbelief can be part of the process of beach reading, but this book did push me almost all the way to my limit. (e.g. Please don’t keep showing up at a creepy suspect’s house to talk to him when you could just call; And if you know that your ex-husband’s new wife is trying to frame you, please don’t skulk outside her house).

The upshot for me: The Girl on the Train did the trick, like a somewhat watery cocktail on the beach on a sunny day. It’s a fun read, but pretty easily forgotten.

You can find an interview with the author here and an article about the Gone Girl comparison here.