Tag Archives: thriller

Book Review: The Girl On the Train

The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins

Constantly compared to Gone Girl because it involves a woman and murder, The Girl On The Train is a very good thriller in its own right. Our main unreliable narrator, Rachel, is an unemployed alcoholic who takes the daily train to town to fool her roommate into thinking she’s still working. On one daily stop she sees into the houses of her old neighborhood where her ex Tom now lives with his new wife and former mistress Anna (and their child), but Rachel forms an attachment to a couple down the street that she builds up in her mind as the perfect couple. The plot is set in motion when Rachel observes Megan (of the perfect couple) cheat on Scott. Shortly thereafter, Megan disappears, and Rachel, still drinking heavily and essentially stalking Tom, wakes up with bloodstains and no memory.  The other women also get a turn narrating, with similarly unreliable accounts and some time-shifting.

While the surface story is about what happened to Megan, the true mastery of the book is in the psychological insights it offers. The characters are, for the most part, between flawed and terrible. Rachel’s growing despair that she tries to tame with alcohol, Anna’s jealous paranoia, and ultimately Megan’s loneliness; all of these are shown in subtle but powerful ways. Rachel, for example, explains what it’s like be too drunk to remember an embarrassing incident (“You want to be able to remember it for yourself, to see it and experience it in your own memory, so that – how did you put it? – so that it belongs to you?”) and wants to “scream with the frustration of it, the not knowing, the uselessness of my own brain.” (Ed.: Guilty.)

The women also agree on one point: the pleasure of control they get from being attractive to a man:

“That’s the thing I like most about it, having power over someone. That’s the intoxicating thing.”
“I was enjoying myself too much. Being the other woman is a huge turn-on, there’s no point denying it: you’re the one he can’t help but betray his wife for, even though he loves her. That’s just how irresistible you are.”
“I never meant for it to go anywhere, I didn’t want it to go anywhere. I just enjoyed feeling wanted; I liked the feeling of control.”

It’s an understandable temptation, and it’s particularly interesting to see it framed from three very different women.

Other highlights, sans context:

“Parents don’t care about anything but their children. They are the centre of the universe; they are all that really counts. Nobody else is important, no one else’s suffering or joy matters, none of it is real.”

“How much better life must have been for jealous drunks before emails and texts and mobile phones, before all this electronica and the traces it leaves.”


Book Review: Everything Burns

Everything Burns, by Vincent Zandri

A nominal thriller, Everything Burns kept me reading without ever truly keeping me interested. Part of that is that I am not particularly fascinated by fire, so the dozens of separate descriptions of flames are about as interesting to me as descriptions of people’s clothes. (I tend to skip both. I finished The Devil Wears Prada in 25 minutes.) Part of it was the plot, which suffers from a number of weaknesses.

I have to give Zandri credit for his protagonist, Reece, who’s neither likable nor particularly impressive but is an intriguing profile of a man with obsessive-compulsive disorder. After his family is killed in a fire, Reece grows up with a fascination with it and also deals with some other problems. Reece is maddening in his decision-making and sometimes yo ujust want to shake him, but for some stretches – especially the slower moments – you see a man dealing with a mental illness, a man who wants to feel differently but can’t. (Zandri uses the verbal crutch of “I can’t help myself” so much that it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s using it intentionally.) Reece’s rollercoaster ride of love, jealousy, trust, anger…it’s frustrating but no more frustrating that being Reece. (I have to admit, it took some reflection to see what Zandri did here, especially because Reece can be very stupid.)

Unfortunately, Zandri doesn’t do much with this character. Having recently reunited with his ex-wife Lisa and moved back in with her and their daughter Anna, Reece is now a best-selling author. His wife is headed for minor surgery, and in her absence Reece becomes obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, a less successful writer named David. When his house is ransacked, Reece confronts David, and the day spirals from there. I wish I could say Reece’s unreliable narrator makes for great suspense, but it just doesn’t. Zandri makes some elementary mistakes that run the plot into the ground.

There are minor mistakes (law firms don’t have CEOs) but that’s not what ruins this. Two of these issues are so egregious I’m going to do a rare thing and put complete spoilers below the fold.

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