Author: Paula Hawkins
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Summary: I loved the structure of this story, but the plot details pushed the bounds of credulity.
I’m a bit late to the party with this popular thriller, already made into a movie. Even if you’ve not read it, you may already have some idea of the plot. Rachel makes the same commute by train every day. One of the few breaks in the monotony of her life are the glimpses she gets of a couple from the train window. She imagines a perfect life for them. But that all changes one morning when she observes something shocking, giving her a chance to be more than just an observer in their lives.
From a writing perspective, I admire this book immensely. The author did an incredible job withholding information from the reader without it feeling contrived. To start with, we hear exclusively about Rachel’s commute, morning and evening. We only learn what she’s thinking about during that time. The author continues with this time structure even when Rachel’s routine changes, on the weekends, and when hearing from other characters. By that point, I had gotten used to this limited window into the characters’ world. I also have a soft spot for books with unique structures and enjoy time jumps that force me to piece together what’s happening. That style of writing often works for me. Here, it kept me in such suspense that I couldn’t put the book down.
The author also made it clear early on that Rachel might not be the most reliable narrator. I preferred that to an author suddenly revealing, part way through a book, that a narrator is unreliable. It let me critically evaluate information as it was provided to me. I also liked that the author often reveals just enough to trick the reader into incorrectly filling in the gaps. She kept me guessing about the end for most of the novel.
At the end, I found myself less impressed by the story than I expected, given how much I loved the structure. I think the details of the big reveal are where the author lost me. The solution to the mystery and the final confrontation felt too dramatic to be believed. They fit with the hints that had been dropped. I just didn’t buy that these events would really happen. [this is a vague spoiler. It would give you some hint to the ending if you were reading the book. highlight white text that follows to read] The shallow characterization of the perpetrator particularly bothered me. I suppose there are people who are just cruel psychopaths, but I prefer stories with more nuanced villains. To just go with ‘they’re evil’ as an explanation feels lazy to me. [end spoiler]
Perhaps criticizing a story for being unlikely is a bit unfair. Many books focus on exceptional events, rather than the mundane. They’re stories! They can focus on the exciting bits. However, it turns out that I, personally, prefer a story that feels more like real life and less like a soap opera, even it it’s very well told.