I was fortunate enough to have been invited to brunch with novelist Paula Todd at Le Select Bistro last February. Her debut novel The Girl on the Train has been a runaway hit since the holidays, and it’s easy to see why. It’s tight, taut and thrilling, with an unreliable narrator all too aware of her unreliability, and a plot so twisty that Miss Marple herself would have a field day trying to parse it all out.
It was my first time at Le Select Bistro and I found the brunch an absolute treat. The main course offered a selection of eggs, steak, salmon, or French toast stuffed with apples and cranberries (my pick, and it’s about as decadent as it sounds), which were served with a selection of freshly baked croissants, fresh fruits, mimosas and a really rich chocolate cake for dessert. Someone else at my table commented that the berries were fresh, not canned, which is a pleasant surprise in the dead of winter. All that to say: if you haven’t had a chance to eat at Le Select Bistro yet, definitely give it a shot.
The brunch highlight of course was author Paula Hawkins herself, who was in Toronto for only a day or two before having to fly out for the rest of her book tour. As I mentioned, her book is a major hit. It has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a comparison I think is a disservice to Girl on the Train, which I actually find a much more potent, captivating read. I spoke to the author only briefly, but found her to be sweet and unassuming, far from the woman I imagined could come up with such a dark and twisty tale. She spoke a bit about how readers have responded to her book, and credits the book’s success to the voyeur in all of us. Whether we admit it or not, there’s something about other people’s secrets that fascinate us, and the book’s protagonist finds herself deeply enmeshed in one.
Have you ever read 4:50 to Paddington? It’s one of my all-time favourite Agatha Christie mysteries. An elderly woman witnesses a murder from a moving train, but when the police come, there is no evidence of a crime at all. Miss Marple happens to be a friend of the woman, so she steps in to investigate.
The Girl on the Train has a similar plot, except without a Miss Marple to come to the witness’ rescue. The protagonist, Rachel, commutes to the city every day. Her train takes her past a house with a seemingly happy couple she nicknames “Jess and Jason,” and she watches their lives through the window as the train whizzes by. Until one day, she sees Jess kissing another man, and when she finds out that Jess has gone MIA, she goes to the police with her fears about Jess’s safety. The problem is, Rachel’s also an alcoholic, who has a complete blank in her memory for the evening that Jess (real name: Megan) disappeared. Worse, Megan lives only a few doors away from Rachel’s old house, where her ex-husband and his new wife now live, and Rachel has had a history of showing up uninvited at their doorstep — again, incidents that because of her alcoholic blackouts, she can barely remember herself.
Hawkins’s writing reminds me of Elizabeth Haynes, one of my favourite contemporary thriller writers whose Into the Darkest Corner is still, bar none, one of the most powerful thrillers I’ve ever read. Like Haynes, Hawkins keeps us trapped within her protagonist’s mind, and when Rachel herself doesn’t fully understand what she knows, then neither do we. We not only empathize with Rachel’s confusion and terror over what had happened that weekend, we feel it ourselves, and like Rachel, we sometimes wonder if anything even happened at all, or if alcohol had caused Rachel to imagine everything.
I couldn’t put this book down. I was completely caught up in Rachel’s story, as well as in the stories of Megan and Anna (Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife), both of whom also interject bits of their own story into the narrative. I love how all the plot threads came together, and above all, I love how much I was sucked into their perspectives. This is a potent psychological thriller — you end up caring about the characters, and whether you figure it out before the end or not, you’ll keep turning the page anyway.
The effects of addiction and of a relationship gone sour are presented with stark frankness by Hawkins, and Rachel feels utterly real as a person, which again makes her struggles real. Kudos as well to Hawkins for not prettifying her character. I’ve read books where the female protagonist feels overweight or frumpy, but others really see her as beautiful, but Rachel really is overweight and frumpy, and I love that the author shows how this affects the way others treat her and her credibility. If this is made into a movie, I’d love for Hollywood to take a similar approach and not present the standard beauty with a few extra pounds.
This is an amazing book, and it was actually a surprise to learn that such masterful plotting was in a debut novel. I look forward to seeing more of Paula Hawkins’ books in the future, and in the meantime, highly recommend this one for a weekend treat.
Thank you to Random House Canada for the invitation to the brunch, and for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.