Saturday, October 17, 2015

Girls Etc. on Trains

I've finally read Paula Hawkins' book Girl on the Train. I liked it. At times I loved it, and at other times I despaired of the plot and the characters... so, I guess when you balance those two reactions...you could say that I liked it. 

paulahawkinsbooks.com

The story revolves around Rachel, the "girl on the train," who travels daily to and from London right past the old neighbourhood where she used to live with her ex-husband. In fact, she can see the house, number 23 Blenheim Road, from the train. As well as another house that Rachel fixates on. Number 15, the twin of her old house, "a Victorian semi, two storeys high, overlooking a narrow, well-tended garden... beyond which lie a few metres of no man's land before you get to the railway track. I know this house by heart." Each morning and each evening the train carries Rachel past this spot. And she watches the couple who live at number 15 whom she calls Jess and Jason. She watches them, fascinated, because to her they are a "perfect, golden couple." She fantasizes about them: he is "dark haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. She is small, a "beauty, pale-skinned with blonde hair cropped short." Only Rachel's never met Jason or Jess. Knows nothing about them, really. Until one day when she sees something disturbing from the train, and then Jess, whose real name is Megan, disappears, and Rachel decides to insert herself into their lives, for real. 


It's a wonderful premise for a novel. The idea of life seen through the window of a train, images that flash into view and then flip away as the train moves on. Hawkins builds the plot in snippets of narrative, initially focusing only on the morning and the evening commutes. And then, as the plot moves away from the train itself, Hawkins' short chapters develop the story using that time frame..."Morning" followed by "Evening" and so on. 

This structure is perfect for a mystery novel that revolves around the idea of memory and truth, and if one can ever actually deliver the other. Especially when the story is told by a particularly unreliable narrator such as Rachel, and in the first person, to boot. I mean, we all lie to ourselves at times, try to cover up our bad behaviour. But when that bad behaviour is committed in a drunken fog, dare I say 'fugue' ...well.... who knows what really happened. You see, Rachel has a drinking problem, among other issues. She's not a terribly sympathetic character, but we empathize with her. At least I did. And then Hawkins introduces two other narrators, Megan/Jess, and then later in the novel Rachel's ex-husband's new wife Anna, and the mess that Rachel is embroiled in becomes even more complex and confusing. 

I found the novel compelling. The plot structure creative. And the style lean and gritty. Hawkins pulls no punches in her description of Rachel's mess of a life. It's definitely not pretty. And yet the humiliating detail of desperate late night phone calls to her ex, soiled underwear, and alcoholic black-outs are what develop the reader's empathy for her. We understand Rachel's fear and her desperation, and we want to find out where Megan is and what really happened that day, as much as Rachel does. 

But, you know, about half-way through the novel, I had had enough. I wanted Hawkins to change things up a bit, perhaps deviate from the repetitive rounds of Rachel's determination to get her act together, followed by her backsliding. Maybe move away from the now-predictable structure of "Morning" and "Evening," brilliant as it seemed in the beginning. The whole novel seems to flounder. And then it improves. Until the last bit. I guess you could say that I agree with Doug Johnstone's review in The Independent, when he says that Girl on the Train is a "cleverly crafted piece of suburban noir." Gee, I wish I had said that. But Johnstone goes on to call the climax and the end of the book "ham-fisted." Yep. It is... a little arbitrary, maybe a tad stagey, or a teensy bit too predictable in its efforts to be as Tess Gerritsen calls it "wildly unpredictable." But then again, maybe I'm just being cranky. 

Reading Paula Hawkins' book had me thinking about how so many books revolve around trains. Like Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train. It's about two men who meet on a train, their strange conversation, the ensuing pact, and a murder.

     

The book was perhaps even more famous once it was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. 


And then there's the most famous train mystery, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Apparently when the book was published in the United States it was renamed Murder in the Calais Coach to distinguish it from Graham Greene's Stamboul Train which had been published in America as Orient Express. Confused? Me too.


Train mysteries abound. In the first scene of Girl on the Train, Rachel spots a discarded pile of clothing beside the tracks, and then later can't get the image out of her head: "I can't help it, I catch sight of these discarded scraps, a dirty T-shirt, or a lonesome shoe, and all I can think of is the other shoe, and the feet that fitted into them." And I couldn't get that scene out of my head. It reminded me of this book by Ann Granger. One of Granger's Mitchell and Markby series, Beneath These Stones, starts with Meredith Mitchell on a train. When the train is halted due to work on the track, she spies an incongruous green backpack in the shape of a frog dangling from a tree branch. And later when a dead body is found and her partner Alan Markby is involved in a murder investigation, Meredith can't get the image of the green plush backpack out of her head. Bodies and train tracks, they seem to go together.


I've been quite interested in old mystery novels lately. Partly because Sarah Weinman, a former student of mine, is an editor and writer in New York and her work has peaked my interest. She's edited a couple of anthologies of women mystery writers of the forties and fifties, especially writers of what Sarah calls novels of "domestic suspense."  Novelists like Patricia Highsmith, Vera Caspary who wrote the novel Laura, and Dorothy B. Hughes author of In a Lonely Place, which was made into the now classic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart. And partly just because I love books and films set in the thirties and forties. Such a stylish era, wasn't it? 

Anyhoo... where was I? Oh yes... trains. Of course, I'd heard of Patricia Wentworth, and of her Miss Silver series, but I'd never actually read any of her books. When I saw several of her novels listed on Audible.com, I thought I'd give them a try. Published anywhere from the twenties to the late fifties, her books are surprisingly well written. I say surprisingly, because the original cover art on the books brings to mind pulp fiction and true romance stories. Which I guess they are, in a way; they certainly do not purport to be literature. But I've found them charming.     


And in the Miss Silver books I've now read (and listened to) there always seems to be a train involved in the crime or in its solution. In The Traveller Returns Miss Silver sits on a train, calmly knitting, and listening to a strange woman recount the events of her day the details of which will eventually be integral in solving Miss Silver's case. And in other novels there are train crashes or train journeys or murders on the station platforms. I could go on, but I won't.

I love train travel. It's always seemed so romantic. And although I'd fantasized about travelling on trains when I was young, I'd never actually been on one until I was in my early twenties. I'd just moved to Ottawa from down-east, and had a job selling Lancôme cosmetics at a down-town department store. My second week there they told me they were sending me to Montreal for a "school." This was a one-day product knowledge workshop at the Lancôme headquarters in downtown Montreal. And I was going on the train. Ooohhh, how exciting! I'd never been to Montreal. Or on a train. I got all dolled up, with help from my sister (my dress, her coat and her high heels) and off I went. I was cool. Or I could fake it. Until I asked the purser on the train where I could get a cup of tea, no seat service in those days. And he pointed to the door at the far end of the aisle, and said the snack bar was in the next car. I looked at him in horror and disbelief. "I'm not going out there!" I gasped, seeing visions of my hair whipping wildly in the wind as I tottered on  my high heels across the ... and that was as far as I got in my imagining before I saw that the junction between cars was actually enclosed. "Thank-you, " I said with as much dignity as I could muster, and tottered down the aisle for my cuppa, thinking that I had seen one too many episodes of Gunsmoke, or Bonanza as a child.  

But I've digressed. Back to books about trains. 

Have you read Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train? What did you think? Feel free to weigh in. On this book, or other train books, or just on trains in general. 











28 comments:

  1. I read The Girl on the Train within the past couple of weeks and had much the same reaction as after reading Gone Girl. Both books were well written, without a doubt, but the characters involved were so unpleasant at times it was hard to keep reading. Rachel's behavior does indeed get tiresome in the extreme long before the book's end. Her constant lying to try to extricate herself from consequences of earlier lying made me want to step into the pages and whack her upside the head more than once. Stories from the 1920s through the 1950s are often a lot more fun, if only as a look at a different way of life entirely, where yes, trains play a part. Leslie Ford, Elizabeth Daly, Mignon Eberhart, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and of course, the couple team of Frances and Richard Lockridge.

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    1. I know what you mean, Michele. I felt so frustrated with Rachel at times. I guess it's a testament to the writer's ability to depict her realistically, in that even though the character's actions were "stupid" (for lack of a better word)... I never once thought..."No one would do something that stupid." I also loved how Hawkins developed her characters, revealing bit by bit, more and more of them as we read. I thought this was very well done. Didn't buy the ending though. Anna never seemed fully realized as a character, to me. I'm going to look up some of those writers you mention.

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  2. Lost a comment to cyberspace, trying again. I read this post with interest, having had two long/ish train journeys in the last few days Rome-Turin and Turin-Paris. The mystery on the latter was what has been lost by the woman who got everyone out of their seats so she could search them thoroughly. Not speaking Italian, we could only guess--a diamond earring, a sentimental ring just big enough to have slipped off. We Got off the train in Paris still wondering...Years ago, we took The Night Train to Lisbon, title of another mystery novel (Pascal Mercier)...i believe this one was made into a movie.
    As for Gone Girl, yes, by the end I was irritated with aspects of structure and narrative but mostly I was entertained. I'm generally amused when I see how much I can dislike a fictional character and I think it's to an author's credit to make us feel an unlike able character from inside that character's mind. We generally begin identifying with a first-person narrator, and gradually recognizing how wrong or invalid their thinking or behaviour is can be really jarring. (I think of Mark Haddon's Dog in the Night book as a prime example). Fun post, thanks!

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    1. I've been following your train adventures on Instagram. The Hawkins book made me think of a train journey I took in England with a girlfriend, from London to Cambridge, when we tried to ignore the loud but fascinating one-sided cell phone conversation going on in the seat behind us. We finally gave up, stopped trying to talk over it and just listened.

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    2. Love that anecdote! Would have joined in the eavesdropping as well.

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  3. I tried to read Girl on a Train but could not get past page ten, and honestly, I struggled to get even that far. I wanted to like it. Really I did. So sorry it didn't work out that way.

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    1. Ah well. Life's too short to read books we hate, I always say. Well, I always say it now that I'm not teaching English anymore:)

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  4. Hi Sue, I've read Girl on a Train but I'm so bad at remembering details - I think I quite liked it! I've discovered a series of books set in, I think, the early '30s, by Rhys Bowen. The protagonist is a very minor (somewhat impoverished) member of the British royal family and becomes a bit of a detective whilst carrying out tasks for her grandma, Queen Mary. Two of my favourite things - mystery novels and royals!

    I spent a lot of time on trains when I first started living in Germany in my early twenties - I would go home to Scotland once or twice a year and the journey usually meant waiting for a connection at 2 am on a train platform somewhere in Germany. As soon as I turned 26 I could no longer travel at a discount, so started flying - I much preferred that!

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    1. Oh... I love the Rhys Bowen series too. Love the scenes with Georgie's mother "the Bolter." I can imagine that waiting on a lonely platform in the middle of the night is not the best! Although it does sound romantic...2 A.M.... "somewhere in Germany"....:)

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  5. Another fascinating post...I love reading about books. My husband and I have about 50 books checked out of the library most of the time, at least half of which are fiction. One author I never hesitate to recommend is Alan Furst, viewed by many as the greatest living writer of historical spy thrillers written in English. Another is Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs series of historical detective mysteries. Mr. Furst's novels and Ms. Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series are set Europe (including Great Britain) in the period from the start of World War I through World War II. In my opinion, they are the best of their genre (at least by living authors writing in English): beautifully written, with many historical insights, fascinating characters and compelling plots. I cannot recall specific scenes on trains, but I'm sure there are some in both authors' novels.

    Loving to ride on trains, I took train trips across Canada (many times), throughout Europe and in the U.S.S.R. and Africa during the late 60's, the 1970's and the early 1990's. I haven't had many opportunities to do long train trips since then, and I miss them. Air travel benefits through my work as a Pan Am purser and train trips to more remote places made for a thrilling, adventurous life! Ready for more, Leslie

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    1. Thanks Leslie. I will definitely look for those Alan Furst books. I think that my husband would like them too. You definitely have lived an adventurous life. We travelled from Ottawa to Edmonton Alberta on the train one year. We spent two nights in a sleeper, ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car, and met some wonderful people over drinks in the observation car. Quite an experience and a great beginning to our Alaska Highway/Yukon adventure.

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  6. I've downloaded Girl on a Train onto my kindle to read on holiday .. Unfortunately I haven't started it yet as we've had a busy few days. I now think I may keep it to read at home on a wintery day curled up in front of the fire! Ssems more suited to this than while travelling through sunny Texas!! ..by SUV!!
    My favourite train journeys are through Switzerland .....from Montreux to Interlaken and to the top of the Jungfrau ..The highest station in Europe. I also love the little cog railways leading up to traffic free villages such as Wengen and Zermatt especially when the mountains are covered in snow. Very definitely places to add to a Bucket List :) ..finance permitting.
    Rosie

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    1. Definitely save that book for a wintery day. It's a shame to waste a good book when there's other stuff that's distracting you....like a great vacation.

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  7. Hi Sue ..Apologies for my comment printing twice ...not sure why? Other than I m on my phone in bright sunlight and I can hardly see the keyboard :) Reading blogs in a busy Theme park while son and hubby enjoy the rides!
    Not me anymore ..Unfortunately ...dodgy back!
    Rosie

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  8. I could have sworn I'd made a coment here. Where did it go? Maybe it needs to be approved? I'll wait and see.

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    1. I don't know where it went, Sandy. Comments on my blog don't need approval. Blogger can be funny sometimes, though. When I comment on someone else's blog if I type my comment and then try to log into Google, the comment disappears. So I always type the comment, then highlight and copy it before I hit publish and have to log in. Once logged in I paste the text of the comment. But sometimes I forget and it disappears into the ether. So frustrating!

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    2. WellI wrote a very bright, intelligent, funny and pithy post. Now it's gone to the ether world! So you'll just have to wait for the next gem because I can't remember what i posted. I just know it was great! :-) Now copying my posts.

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  9. I'm another who has had problems posting comments - never did manage to contribute on the 'Brown ' post . I put it down to being in Scotland now & in a wifi black hole due to pesky mountains . My sister read Gone Girl & recommended it to me but is currently reading Girl on a Train & complaining all the time . So I won't rush into it . It's nice to see all these other authors mentioned by your commenters & I will look into them .
    Wendy not in York

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    1. Sorry you've been having comment woes. When we were in Quebec skiing last winter I had the same issues and gave up trying to comment on other blogs for the duration of our stay. And on top of that my i-pad would not let me reply to comments on Blogger. I'd type three or four words and not be able to do anything else. Arggg technology! I did like Girl on the Train... but didn't love it. Really there are much better books out there getting many fewer accolades. I think it was the fact that it was billed as "the next Gone Girl" which created half of the buzz.

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  10. Aha, I just wrote a reply and it's gone! But I copied it so here it is. WellI wrote a very bright, intelligent, funny and pithy post. Now it's gone to the ether world! So you'll just have to wait for the next gem because I can't remember what i posted. I just know it was great! :-) Now copying my posts. PS. I wanted to sign in using Name and URL as opposed to Google. That's when it disappeared. Your's in the only blog I have that problem with.

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    1. Sorry about that. I just tried a test comment using name and URL and it worked. I do know that Blogger sometimes goes a bit weird. Yesterday I couldn't upload some pictures and spent tons of time trying to figure out what was wrong. Though it might be the security features on my new computer. Signed off in frustration only to come back late and have the very same pictures upload perfectly. Sorry it's been so frustrating to you. Not being a techie person... I'll try to figure out what happens. But it may take me a while:)

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  11. Haven't read "Girl on a Train" but was interested to read your review as opinion seems to be divided. Will give it a go at some stage. Am currently reading and enjoying Adrian McKinty's "The Cold Cold Ground" which I discovered via your blog so thank you. Love train travel especially when abroad. Iris

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    1. Really glad you are liking Adrian McKinty, Iris. If only Paula Hawkins' plots hung together as well as his do, her book would be so much better.

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  12. Loved reading this post and all the great comments and suggestions. I just ordered, and arriving tomorrow, my new Kindle Paperwhite! My old Kindle is ancient of days so I rarely use it. Yes, I prefer books, but for travel of course, Kindle is the way to go. Will download several of all your suggestions. Thanks!!!!

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    1. Hope you like the books suggested, Libby.

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  13. Love your book reviews! I haven't read these, but did I remember to tell you that one of your reviews led me directly to Peter May? It's great to learn new books and even authors. I thoroughly enjoyed The Black House, and will read more of his novels ... so, merci!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed Black House. The other two in his Lewis trilogy are just as good.

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.