The Girl on the Train

9781594633669_p0_v3_s260x420Although Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train has been at the top of the bestseller list, I have resisted reading the book – because reviewers have compared the story to Gillian Flynn’ Gone Girl – and I did not want to revisit a sordid tale with miserable characters and an ending with no acceptable possibilities.  But The Girl on the Train is so much better.  Like Alfred Hitchcock, Hawkins understands that the audience wants twists and turns, red herrings, and scary scenes in a psychological crime thriller – but above all, readers want closure and relief – hopefully with the villain finally being defeated.  Hawkins, unlike Flynn, delivers.

The story flips back and forth from several unreliable narrators – basically, almost everyone is lying to someone.  Rachel is the girl on the train; she imagines lives for people she sees in houses along a short rail stop.  Have you ever played that game sitting in a restaurant or a park, watching people go by – wondering what their lives are like – sometimes creating fantasies about who they are and where they are going?  A friend tells me she has done this with her husband, as she blithely identifies who belongs to the neighborhood and who is on vacation.  Rachel has an insider’s view to the game; she is divorced from Tom who lives in one of the houses with his new wife and baby.  A few doors down, she creates a better life for neighbors Megan and Scott, assigning the perfect marriage to this couple – until she sees Megan with another man, as the train moves on.

Eventually, all these characters connect – and Megan’s disappearance fuels the beginning of the mystery.  Hawkins cleverly introduces police detectives and a psychiatrist into the mix, as Rachel’s credibility as the key narrator continues to fall apart.  As each character’s fatal flaw unravels, Hawkins changes the scene and the possibilities of whodunnit:  Rachel, an alcoholic with blackouts, leaving her wondering what she did in those empty hours; Scott, Megan’s husband, a secret wife beater; Tom, the corrosive liar.  Even Anna, the new wife with a guilt complex, becomes a possible co-conspirator.

Since it’s more fun to read the story yourself and try to figure out the next turn, I won’t tell you more or offer any spoilers.  But – if you liked the dark side of Gone Girl, you will probably like The Girl on the Train.  And – if you did not like Gone Girl – you will find The Girl on the Train a better thought-out drama.

The Girl on the Train is Paula Hawkins’ debut in the crime thriller genre, and I can’t wait until her next book.  I may even check out some of earlier books –  romance novels, written under her pseudonym, Amy Silver.


The Blue Book

9780544027701_p0_v1_s260x420A. L. Kennedy’s Blue Book requires concentration and patience. With so many strange tangents, the story shifts dramatically and often, so that you may think you are reading the first chapter of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But, if you persist, you will be rewarded.

Three characters drive the action: Beth and Derek, who are on a week-long ocean cruise, and Arthur, whom they supposedly meet for the first time in the queue to board the ship. Kennedy soon reveals that Arthur and Beth are old acquaintances and sometime lovers, with Derek unaware of a rival onboard. Beth and Arthur worked together as a theatrical psychic team, using numbers to communicate stage cues to each other; knowing this before you begin to read may help.

As Derek languishes in his cabin with seasickness, prolonged by Beth’s scuttling his seasick pills to keep him there, Arthur disappears into his suite on the concierge level.  Beth splits her time between Derek in the stifling sick room cabin, and Arthur with his complimentary butler, with a few forays to the buffet in between.  Although this may sound like a Marx Brothers farce, the humor is subtle and the overwhelming emotional baggage they have all carried on board floats up.

Kennedy’s wry humor reveals the characters’ innermost thoughts with her stand-up comedy timing.

“…you don’t want to get married, not you – marriage, that’s an institution – since when did you want to spend life in an institution?”

 and she addresses the reader with off stage soliloquies that draw the reader in as a fellow conspirator.   When Kennedy’s unreliable narrator digresses from the plot in the middle of the book to address “you,” the reader, I wondered, as you may – how did she know that about me?  Like reading a horoscope, each reader can be sure a part of the message was meant for him or her, and confirms how Beth and Arthur could control an audience with their participants’ expectations –  “…we live in stories…”  The narrator also subtly offers hints to the emotional journey that the main characters are experiencing, that only makes sense at the end, when Kennedy neatly brings all the mysterious plot lines together – as well as explaining the title – with yet another surprise.

When interviewed by John Williams for The New York Times – A Couple At Sea: A. L. Kennedy Talks About the Blue Book –  Kennedy defined the plot:

Two people decide to trust each other enough — and themselves enough — to love each other properly and be honest and to use all of themselves to be with each other. That’s the interior plot. The exterior plot is: “There are three people on a boat, one woman, two men — go figure.”

Despite my initial confusion, I kept reading and connected to Kennedy’s philosophical quirks as well as the work of keeping all the plot lines in my head.  Her ending was satisfying.  If you decide to read this book, find a quiet place to focus on it, with no distractions – maybe an ocean cruise.

The Dinner

9780770437855_p0_v4_s260x420What is it about horrible characters that can capture and hold my attention, and then leave a sour taste afterwards, with a depressed feeling of having wasted a day in reading about them?  Gillian Flynn did it in Gone Girl, and now the Dutch writer Herman Koch has repeated that hypnotic guile in The Dinner.

As he marches his characters through a family dinner at an elite restaurant, the innocuous descriptions of fussy waiters and overpriced food lull the reader into wondering why the tale had been listed as a thriller.  Slowly, the inadequacies and quirks of Paul, the history teacher whose psychiatric disorder has forced him to take a leave of absence, and Serge, his brother, the aspiring prime minister with a penchant for control and overeating, escalate from petulant commentary to sinister foreboding.

The parents have met for “the dinner” to discuss their children – teenagers whose recent horrendous criminal action (no spoiler here), recorded by a security camera, has gone viral on the internet – with the faces of the boys unrecognizable to all, except their parents.  The pressure increases when one of the boys uses his phone video posting on YouTube, with more specific identification of the perpetrators,  to blackmail the others.  The parents are meeting at “the dinner” to decide what to do.

As the courses are served, Koch uses the narrator, Paul, as an observer of the inadequacies of the world in general; his thoughts seem benign and a little caustic, but soon the inferences become prejudicial and sarcastic. No one is innocent, moral, or with any semblance of conscience, and parenting is an exercise in avoidance, bad example, and promoting bad behavior in the interest of protecting one’s child.

Like Gone Girl, this tale is told by an unreliable narrator, who is at once unlikable yet compelling, and with twists in the story that are disorienting.  If you like to get your thrills through skeptical illustrations of the dark side of the mind, you might appreciate Koch’s manipulations – and wonder if those around you, who are seemingly normal, are just one close step from becoming dangerously asocial.