The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Pay no attention to the sentences in The Girl on the Train. The sentences are utilitarian at best, and often laden with painful clichés. But words aren’t what matters in The Girl on the Train. It’s plot. It’s characters who feel familiar and surprising. It’s scenes as vivid as a Netflix thriller.

Speaking of Netflix and its nothing-too-controversial mandate, The Girl on the Train is a lot like Gone Girl, a book-turned-movie I first watched on Netflix. I never picked up Gone Girl the book, but the movie satisfied my desire to be entertained, which is what I want out of movies. Maybe, if I’m feeling spry, a presentation of humanity that offers me a new perspective on the world. But I have different expectations of the books that I read. And The Girl on the Train made me question those expectations.

(Photo: Amy Attas)

I like to think I read smart books with intricate language and fresh ideas. But the truth is I don’t read as many books as I’d like. The truth is, before I read The Girl on the Train I wasn’t reading anything at all. So I was grateful to be holding a book instead of a phone, and my body benefitted from the break. But The Girl on the Train is really more like a movie script than a novel, so is it any better than Netflix? Is it feeding my brain? Does it have to?

I don’t want to give the impression that the book is a waste. The settings and scenes are all strategically-structured and vividly depicted. Some scenes sit in my memory like scenes from a play, and that is a rare skill. Paula Hawkins knows what’s entertaining, and she knows how to twist our expectations and build suspense. Her background is in journalism, and the unfolding of the criminal investigation feels authentic and well-informed. She incorporates police work, media coverage, and eye-witness accounts to let readers play with the evidence and toy with solving the case. The world feels like ours, the story familiar enough that we think we might piece it together.

This is a beach book. A book to get you through two airports or a week of dreary commutes. Chances are, if you read this book in public, you’ll meet a stranger who’s read it too. And isn’t it better to small talk about books than to small talk about the weather?

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