For close to three years, publishers have been trying to tag their latest releases to “Gone Girl.” So you have to give credit to the Riverside Books marketing team, who appear to have turned British writer Paula Hawkins’s “The Girl on the Train” into a blockbuster — largely on the basis of its tenuous association with Gillian Flynn’s 2012 runaway bestseller.
Released in January and positioned as a debut novel (which it isn’t), the book shot to the top of New York Times bestseller list, fueled by Times book review critic Janet Maslin, who wrote: “'The Girl on the Train' has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since 'Gone Girl.' " Next came an endorsement from Stephen King, who tweeted to his 480,000-plus followers in the wee hours of a late January morning:
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, by Paula Hawkins: really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The alcoholic narrator is dead perfect.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) January 26, 2015
The Times Sunday Book Review panned it, and a few critics like Laura Miller, writing in Salon, said that the book, “while diverting, never offers more than the reliable gratifications of its genre.” But Miller — and the vast majority of reviewers and commentators who’ve written more than a sentence about “The Girl on the Train” — compared it to “Gone Girl,” strengthening the insubstantial link between two novels with remarkably little in common.
Hawkins’ book has sold more than 2.5 million copies, and may be the fastest-selling adult hardcover debut novel ever, according to her publisher. (“The Da Vinci Code” sold 215,694 copies in its first seven weeks; “The Girl on the Train” sold one million during the same time period.) DreamWorks has snapped up the rights, and Emily Blunt is said to be in talks to star in the movie. The hardbound edition is piled up in stores, digital copies are stored on countless Kindles, and the novel is the title of choice for book clubs across the country this summer.
I’m bemused by the success—more so the continual comparisons. To be sure, both books are psychological thrillers — page-turners with vaguely similar titles in which a wife disappears and the husband becomes a suspect in a murder investigation. Both are nonlinear stories of corrosive spousal deception set in the present that move in and out of chronological sequence. Each is told by more than one untrustworthy — some would say “unlikable” — narrator.
But “Gone Girl” is a stylishly written, black-humored, entertaining social satire that legions of readers loved and many loathed. It has well-drawn characters, a clever backstory and acutely executed depictions of telling moments of our time. (The media frenzy that unfolds when a well-educated white woman goes missing is a favorite of mine.) At its center, of course, is a high-def portrait of the audacious Amazing Amy, a manipulative sociopath who’s always in control.
Rachel, the eponymous girl on the train, by contrast, is a divorced, “barren,” unhappy and increasingly unhinged alcoholic who fears she’s lost control of everything. With reason. Fired from her job because of drunkenness, Rachel still rides the daily commuter rail between London and Ashbury, a colorless suburb. The train runs behind a block of Victorian semis, including one where Rachel lived until two years ago with her ex-husband Tom. He’s still there, ensconced with his new wife and their baby daughter. To avoid seeing them, Rachel fixates on the comings and goings of an attractive, “perfect” couple that live a few doors down. She conjures a glamorous life for the two, even naming them Jess and Jason. “They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me five years ago,” she laments. Then Rachel spots “Jess” — whose real name is Megan — kissing a man who isn’t Jason (Scott) in her garden. Shortly thereafter, Megan is reported missing.
Distraught and close to delusional, Rachel involves herself in the crime investigation, offering highly skeptical police detectives “evidence” based on scenes she glimpsed through a window on a moving train. (The allusions to Hitchcock’s "Rear Window,” add some nice tonal touches to an often colorless narrative.) She lies her way into others’ confidences; fingers one suspect and sleeps with another.
Hawkins, a former financial journalist who wrote four “chick lit” titles under a pseudonym before trying her hand at suspense fiction, has said she conceived of the book as Rachel’s story. She later gave voice to Megan, who turns out to be a troubled, restless soul married to the controlling Scott, and Anna, Tom’s smug, banal and more than a little vindictive wife. But while the two offer some perspective on events we’ve only seen through Rachel’s addled eyes, Anna and Megan are too faintly sketched to make much impression. Their respective husbands, meanwhile, are a couple of vaguely menacing plot devices.
Rachel, by far the most fully realized character, is the book's most sympathetic and compelling. Her acute sense of loss over her failed relationship -- and her inability to conceive — is heart rending, particularly as details of her marriage emerge. But as King (a recovering alcoholic who’s written memorably about active and inactive drunks) observes, Rachel is a “dead perfect” alcoholic — someone who’s continually apologizing, reflexively lying and prone to blackouts that drive key elements in the plot. Her life is frustrating, claustrophobic and flat. And she tries readers’ patience each time she opens one more wine bottle or canned, pre-mixed gin and tonic.
Hawkins, like many of her readers, says she’s puzzled (but flattered) by the continual comparisons of “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train.” She wonders if people would compare the two if they were the written by men.
I wonder too how “The Girl on the Train” would hold up if, like "Gone Girl," it had been talked about, argued over and deconstructed in a seemingly endless sequence of articles, online discussions, blog posts and screeds, in the months after its release.
“The Girl on the Train” doesn’t seem to have generated a lot of buzz or much of an online fan base. Maybe that is because some less-than-reliable narrators have spurred much of its success: Maslin, writing for a relatively sophisticated Times readership that appreciates “fun” narrative techniques; King, an authority on thrillers and drunken narration; social media feeds that generate a relentless stream of SEO-optimized headlines, comment and advertorial quoting itself.
“The Girl on the Train” is a decent suspense story. But it’s not a particularly good novel, nor is it a worthy sequel to “Gone Girl.” It's a publishing phenomenon, a triumph of word of mouth marketing in the digital echo chamber.
A former arts and culture writer for The Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix, Maureen Dezell is a freelance writer and senior editor at Boston College.