A novel by a former journalist broke the all-time book sales record for thrillers in the United Kingdom last week, surpassing even Dan Brown's gangbusters seller The Lost Symbol.
The title of this book, The Girl on the Train, is innocuous, and doesn't tell you much. The cover of the book is a smeared color palette of blues, greens, and blacks — presumably the whirl of the world outside the viewpoint of the girl on the train — and at first glance it looks like it could be just another literary novel.
But Paula Hawkins' novel is an intriguing, fast-paced thriller. Built around the story of a woman who watches a group of houses through the window of the train every day on her morning commute, Paula Hawkins’s tale is at turns horrifying, brilliant, and completely surprising.
Here are 7 reasons why The Girl on the Train is worth your time:
Though popularity isn’t always a good reason to take part in the consumption of art, it certainly says something about a book: word-of-mouth recommendations. Fifty Shades of Grey owes its success to women telling other women to read it — either for erotic pleasure or laughs. The Girl on the Train has buzz because it's just that good. I would spend the 13 dollars I paid for my copy three more times to re-read this story for the first time again.
Hawkins uses three main characters to tell her story. Each chapter is titled with the name of the character who narrates the scene, often overlapping with another character’s already-told experience. Though the book has several central male characters who are essential to the story, Hawkins doesn’t give us a single chapter told through their perspective.
At times, the missing voices of the men could be used to further humanize them and extend the story, but Hawkins seems to have made an conscious choice to have this story be by and about the women who are the most affected. In a literary world where stories about men are canonized and stories about women are seen as trivial, it’s incredibly refreshing to read a novel where women are placed front and center; their perspectives are important.
Sometimes women are written as gender stereotypes — weak, sweet, and docile. Hawkins' characters are not stereotypes, which is what makes the story compelling. The main character is an alcoholic who can’t seem to get her life back together after leaving her husband. The second woman was a mistress who hates the first. And the third female character, well, she’s missing.
They are all incredibly difficult women, and because of that they’re great characters.
A recent trend in literary fiction is to pack novels full of secondary, kind of unnecessary characters who make a single observation or point that is important to the author’s perception of what the story should be. I have read so many books lately that have seven or eight main characters plus secondary characters and, even as someone who reads a lot, it's overwhelming and slightly off-putting.
Hawkins gives you three main characters who are all connected to one another, and two or three secondary characters for each of them. All of these characters exist in the same space and interact with one another, making it easier to remember who was married to who — and who maybe killed who.
Hawkins is a smart story teller; she has crafted a tale that hurtles along like a train. It's hard to slow down while reading. Each sentence flows seamlessly into the next, spurring you to turn the page to find out what happens next.
Novel writers and editors often talk about how the “hook” — the first part of the first chapter — must be strong and unforgettable, to convince readers to continue. Books are competing for your attention — not just against other books, but with television, music, movies, dinner, the internet and your cell phone.
I usually read several books at a time and generally finish books within the month I start them. I do not typically read books in a weekend — much less in two days — and that is how fast I finished The Girl on the Train. It’s unstoppable.
Spoilers can be great. Reading spoilers about how a book ends allows readers to critically analyze the way the book is constructed and the techniques used by the author. But Girl on the Train is a book about plot. Part of why it is labeled as a “thriller” instead of just a “novel” is that the author’s plotting is impeccable.
There are twists and turns that readers can see coming, and there are some that flip everything you know about the story on its head. Hawkins is brilliant at both. This novel is constructed smartly and subtly, to surprise and shock readers.
Dream Works optioned the film rights to this story before the book was published, and you should definitely read the book before it goes Hollywood and hits theaters.
Americans, on average, only read a little more than one book per year. Not a shame if you choose this one.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.