Every morning, Rachel Watson rides a train from her house in the suburbs to her job in the city. Every night, she rides it back. In between, she has secrets to spare (that we won’t spoil here), but the most exciting part of her day always happens early, when a tricky signals stops her morning commuter train on the backside of a charming bedroom community where Rachel, not so very long ago, used to live. Unmoored by various aspects of her life, Rachel is rooted to few things, but her commute is one of them, so it’s not entirely surprising that it’s within the confines of this routine that she finds something to obsess over.
Unlikable, rude, thoughtless, drunk, and horribly wounded, Rachel isn’t a “likable” character, a wild anti-heroine who has been compared (quite rightly) to Gone Girl’s own Amy Dunne, but Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train chugs its story and its characters (mainly Rachel) right into some new territory. Hawkins’ novel, released earlier this year, is a smash hit and a New York Times bestseller that appears to be sweeping the book club crowd (my book club read it after it was recommended by a member’s mom, whose own book club had just finished it) thanks to its heady blend of big mystery and canny storytelling – and now it’s going to be a movie.
Hawkins’ book slips seamlessly between time periods (most of the novel’s action takes place over a spring and summer span of a few months, which keeps things interesting but very manageable) and points of view – Hawkins neatly notates who are narrator is at the start of each chapter, along with the dates it takes place, which should be easy enough to translate to the big screen, but that already has a readymade cinematic feeling built right in – and though it’s definitely Rachel’s story, two other ladies get their own say, too.
Rachel becomes fixated on a young couple she sees most mornings on her daily commute, a happy-looking pair that live right along the train tracks. Rachel doesn’t have a whole lot going on in her own life – and we soon find out why that’s so – and she also has a weirdo attachment to the street that “Jess” and “Jason,” as she terms them, live on, so her unsettling obsession sort of makes sense. When Hawkins’ book opens, Rachel has been watching Jess and Jason for months, and she’s certain she’s figured out their lives. She’s idealized them really, which makes the truth of their relationship that much more awful for an already unhinged Rachel to deal with. Jess – her real name is Megan, and she gets her own chapters, too – goes missing one day, and when Rachel realizes it’s her, she starts connecting some dots.
It doesn’t help matters that Rachel, who is especially prickly about infidelity, saw Megan embracing a strange man the day before she went missing (nope, not “Jason,” who is really named Scott). As Rachel starts investigating the disappearance for herself, she – and the readers – learn lots more about both Megan and Rachel. Oh, and there’s even a third narrator, just for grins: Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife, who has her own links to Megan.
It’s all very twisted and thrilling and dark and weird, and it’s also a book that, thanks to its popularity and zippy narrative, will absolutely make an excellent movie. Did you like Gone Girl for its twists and thrills? The Girl on the Train will hit those buttons. Enjoyed getting to know a twisted and very different heroine? This one has that, too – well, it has it three, but you get it – and Rachel, Megan, and Anna are all especially screwed up characters with fascinating points of view.
Too bad then that the inevitable The Girl on the Train film – it was optioned in 2014, months before the book itself was published, with screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson on board for scripting duties – has set Tate Taylor to direct the film, per Variety. David Fincher he is not, and though Taylor has directed some serviceable adaptations in the past, most notably The Help (from a book) and Get on Up (from a whole life), he’s never demonstrated an eye or hand for tension in the past.
The Girl on the Train is all tension, and lots of questions, two things Taylor hasn’t ever had to work for, and given the tremendous potential of the movie, it’s kind of disheartening that he’s the one who has been picked to helm it – and yet, if The Girl on the Train teaches us anything, it’s that perspective is essential. Maybe Taylor has a new view we haven’t even seen coming, chugging along the tracks (please let this be so).