I don’t have a ton of time for reading. Does that shock anybody? So my wife and I have had this one on our shelves for several months. Meant to read it — something came up. Meant to read it — wanted to read something else first. Meant to read it — got distracted with a flashy app on the phone.
Well, I finally read it, and I’m mad at myself for putting it off so long.
Here’s the obligatory part of the post where I warn you that I’ve read the book, and it’s hard to talk about the book in depth without spoiling some aspects of it. So: Spoiler Alert. Within I’ll be speaking (not at length, and unspecifically when I can) about characters and developments within the book. If you’re a purist and want to be shocked by everything, this is probably the part where you should stop reading.
What’s Awesome about it?
- The Buildup. The book starts off slow — almost too slow — but once the inciting incident happens, the tension ratchets up after just about every chapter and never really slackens. The end result is that I ended up reading the last hundred pages of the book in twenty-minute sessions stolen during the same twenty-four hour period. I just couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next.
- The Characters. The story revolves around the (not quite) alternating viewpoints of three women. None of these women is particularly likable, but each of them is undeniably recognizable. Their motivations, their hangups, their insecurities and their suspicions make perfect sense, and I found myself rifling through all sorts of feelings toward each of them. Sometimes I pity them. Sometimes I hate them. Sometimes I can’t believe how stupid they are. But always I’m compelled to see what they’re going to do next. That’s maybe the most important part of all this: each character has a very clear role in driving the story forward. Nobody is tacked on or just blowing in the wind like a useless confederate flag.
- The Conflict. Something terrible happens and our central narrator (Rachel) fears that she may have been involved in it somehow. Problem is, she was blackout drunk the night in question and has no recollection of the events in question. This snarl adds another level to the mystery that’s already unfolding, and of course is a tremendous source of strife for the narrator. I’ll acknowledge that selective amnesia as a plot device would feel like a cop-out, but the blackouts aren’t present merely as a convenience: the narrator is as unreliable as they come. She’s a binge-drinker, and it becomes clear through the course of the story that the crucial blackout is not the only one in her life; rather, they happened to her several times in her life, and were also directly responsible for her shattered relationship (the falling apart of which is the backdrop to the whole story).
- The Ending. I won’t spoil it, but the end sets you up for such a delightful one-two punch of betrayal and then vindication, it’s almost overwhelming. My wife was getting frustrated with me because I kept gasping and then exclaiming reading the last few pages while she was trying to work. I couldn’t help it. It was that good.
- The Structure. Maybe it’s me, but the novel is awfully preoccupied with dates and I don’t know if it needs to be. Each chapter and sub-chapter is marked meticulously with the date and the time of day (August 13, 2013, Morning), a device which is certainly intended to build together a timeline of events. This becomes “necessary” since the narrative jumps around in time; we have the murdered woman telling swatches of her story after she has already died in the timelines of the other two narrators. Now, I understand that the dramatic tension and reveals achieved this way are a big payoff for the book, and I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is the fact that with all the dates heading each chapter, I feel like I should have been taking notes for a test at the end of the book. I don’t know that the events of the story — especially when viewed through the lens of a less-than-reliable, sort of drifting-aimlessly-through-life narrator — call for such specificity. But maybe that’s just me. End result: I pretty much ignored the dates and I did just fine piecing together the story without them.
- Red Herrings and Such. At its heart, the book is a mystery novel, so there have to be false leads, misinformation, overlooked clues, and all that. But the main suspect for much of the book is just so obviously not the guy. Over 150 pages are spent trying to convince us that he could be the guy, but he’s obviously not. It felt taxing after a while, to still be going through the motions of investigating this guy who was obviously not the guy. And then the guy who turns out to be the guy, well, it feels a little out of left field, a little too easy, a little too neat. But again, that might just be my cynicism acting up.
What’s Hard to Quantify?
- There is no hero. Yeah, we’re in the age of the anti-hero, where the protagonist has to do horrible things to win the day. And while I’m not saying there’s nobody to root for — clearly we hope that Rachel manages to pull through her troubles — it’s hard to get behind any of them. Rachel’s a drunkard and a total sad-sack living in the shadow of a broken marriage. Anna’s an adulteress who’s overly hateful of the woman she wrecked home on, and becomes increasingly suspicious and distrustful of her adulterating husband. Megan’s perhaps the easiest one to like, until you find out that SPOILER ALERT she’s responsible for the death of her own child. I just find it hard to hope for good things for any of them, though it does get revealed that Rachel’s problems were not entirely of her own making (as she seems to believe toward the beginning of the book).
- Moral Ambiguity. It’s hard to say if Rachel causes the events of the book or if she just blunders through them, but what’s clear is that the story wouldn’t have happened if the narrator had kept to herself. Since her own life is in the crapper, she lives vicariously through the anonymous people she sees on the train, and that’s what sets things in motion. Whether the novel suggests this is a good thing or not is unclear: the murder gets solved because she sticks her nose in, but she also causes a world of hurt (for herself and the other characters — up to and possibly including actually playing a role in the murder herself) by sticking her nose in. The moral of the story is, then, either get involved in the lives of those around you, or don’t. I think you could make a compelling argument either way.
- Looking inside the heads of women. I would need to hear from female readers on this, but if women in real life think the way these women do, then it would benefit guys to read this book. Because wow. The way they draw connections between events, the way they read between the lines of everything that’s said, the way they think about the men in their lives… men are toddlers, living among evil geniuses.
Okay, so, this review is by no means exhaustive, and I don’t want to spoil the book any more than I have to, but suffice to say, I got through it in four days. That’s pretty fast for me, and it speaks to the readability of the book. The tension is there; it hooks you and yanks you along like a guppy on the line.
All that said, the book does a brilliant job of romanticizing the everyday. The book is centered around trips back and forth on a train — a more mundane premise you could not imagine. But what’s mundane, just like in real life, quickly transforms into something much bigger, much more consequential. Things, in other words, always mean things. It accomplishes all this, however, with very straightforward, unembellished language. No purple prose here, no artful application of metaphors and comparisons or allegories. The writing is simple and straightforward, which, again, makes it very easy to read.
I pointed out some good and some bad, but who am I kidding: I read the book in four days, which is almost unheard of for me. The bad stuff, I feel, is largely subjective, and what bothers me might not bother you. The book is solid. It’s surprising. It’s satisfying.
You should read it.