Yes, it’s another guest review. This one done by that lovely British lady Rosie Blythe who you might remember as the talented author of the book The Princess Guide to Life, which I gave a rave review a while back. Rosie and I have struck up a on-line friendship and I’m thrilled to publish her first guest review. Learn more about Rosie Blythe below.
When a book debuts at number one on the New York Times Best Seller List and remains there for over three months, it’s a fair bet that it will be an enticing read (and one with the inevitable film adaptation already in the works).
The story begins slowly, innocuously. Rachel travels into London every day, and like many commuters, she passes her time on the train by looking out of the window. As the 8:04 to Euston trundles slowly past the houses which back onto the railway tracks, she gets a fleeting glimpse of their occupants. The train always stops at the same signal, and Rachel gets a perfect view of her favourite house. She can see the couple inside as they go about their everyday business, and in her boredom, she makes up stories about them and their sublimely happy relationship. She names them Jason and Jess, and they come to represent everything Rachel wants – everything she used to have. “They’re Tom and me, five years ago.”
We discover that Rachel has become something akin to Bridget Jones – if Helen Fielding’s creation had taken a really dark turn. She drinks too much. She’s put on weight and finds that men regard her with a mixture of contempt and pity. She makes nuisance calls to her ex-husband – she’s not being malicious, she just misses her old life. It all started going wrong when she couldn’t get pregnant, and her husband had an affair – now the other woman is his new wife and they have an adorable baby daughter. It’s not surprising that Rachel drinks herself into oblivion as often as possible in her rented single room – and now her alcoholism is also destroying her professional life. Meanwhile, we have a change in narrator, with alternate flashback chapters from one year earlier, voiced by “Jess”, the woman living beside the railway tracks. In reality, her name is Megan and her life is far from the perfect idyll Rachel has imagined. Can her past confessions shed any light on the events of today?
The story begins to deepen when Rachel spots “Jess” kissing another man; this evidence of trouble in paradise rocks her to the core, bringing back memories of her own ex-husband’s infidelity. Rachel knows how devastating affairs can be; should she somehow contact “Jason” (who is actually named Scott) and tip him off about his wife’s indiscretions? It’s all rather too close to home – quite literally, as Rachel’s old house is on the same street as Scott and Megan’s. Her ex-husband Tom has remained there, joined by his new wife Anna – who also contributes the odd chapter just so we can hear her side of the story.
Rachel decides to return to her old stomping ground to suss out what’s going on with Scott and Megan – “I just want to see him. I want to see them… what harm can it do?” – but it all goes horribly wrong. She wakes up with the hangover from hell and no memory of what happened on that fateful night – but Megan is now missing. Can Rachel piece everything together, or will she walk blindly into danger?
While many writers create effortlessly cool and sexy protagonists (no doubt with one eye on Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt for the movie version) Paula Hawkins dares to make Rachel, well, not particularly likeable. She’s a busybody, and her desperate desire to be involved with the action results in her spinning a web of lies which tightens around her as she gets pulled deeper into the murkiness surrounding Megan’s disappearance.
Often, thrillers lose credibility because the main characters have to be smart enough to solve crimes, yet just stupid enough to make the irrational decisions which will prolong the book (entering the dark alleyway with the stranger, hiding in a cupboard instead of calling the police etc.) Paula Hawkins cleverly sidesteps this; Rachel’s alcoholism provides a realistic reason for her to make unwise choices (such as drunkenly contacting people she shouldn’t), and leads to her becoming more and more isolated as people shut her out of their lives.
Rachel may be a frustrating narrator, with her erratic behaviour and dramatic lapses in memory, but we sympathise with her. (While wishing she could get her act together and stop being so self-destructive.) The rest of the characters also have an admirable collection of flaws – Megan has a dark past, and her husband may not be such a strong and selfless protector, after all. Due to Rachel’s stalkerish tendencies and harassment, we might have felt sorry for our third narrator, Anna, but then she admits that she liked being the other woman and doesn’t care how it affected Rachel. In fact, all Anna cares about is protecting the secure little family unit she has created.
The book has been described as “Alfred Hitchcock for a new generation,” and I agree; as well as a slow-burning creepiness, it has that classic Hitchcockian theme of knowing that the police aren’t going to listen and take you seriously, no matter how urgent your information, because they already have you down as crazy and delusional.
I found the story perfectly paced, with new twists and turns coming from the most unexpected directions. If you’re a binge-reader who can finish a gripping novel in one breathless sitting, be warned: you’re likely to end up reading under the covers at 3 am, and jumping out of your skin every time a floorboard creaks.
Rosie Blythe lives in London (hence all those crazy British spellings) and when she’s not writing, works as a stylist in television and film. She enjoys reading everything from self-help and biographies to cosy mysteries and lurid thrillers. She’s written two books: The Princess Guide to Life, and the much sillier The Princess Guide to Being a Cat.