Several months ago I read You by Caroline Kepnes, which was engrossing, but all the characters were horrible people and I couldn’t give a whit what happened to them. When they encountered very bad things, all I could do was shrug.
And now I’ve read British author Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which is similar in that I couldn’t stand any of the characters (save for one) but I still tore through the book to get to the resolution. These two novels taken together made me ponder: Do we need to like the main characters in order to like a story?
But first, more about the Hawkins book. Rachel, one of three narrators, is the titular girl on the train. She’s been laid off but still takes the same train every day that she used to take to work because she can’t bear to tell her roommate the truth. The train stops at the same signal daily so Rachel regularly sees a young couple in a house along the tracks, where she envisions they live the perfect life she longs for herself.
One day, she sees the wife doing something, ah, less than perfect, and shortly thereafter, the papers announce that the woman, whose name is Megan, is missing. Rachel starts inserting herself into the investigation, believing she alone holds an important clue.
The story is also told from Megan’s POV in chapters dated before she disappears, and late in the book, the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, Anna, chimes in with her own versions of events.
The pacing is as fast as a bullet train and Hawkins sure knows how to keep readers guessing about what happened to Megan. Rachel gets herself in hot water as she keeps trying to help solve the case. The problem is that I was disgusted by all the leads’ behavior. They are selfish, boorish people for whom I have little sympathy, if any.
Rachel is a wallowing, self-pitying alcoholic who drinks so much she has blackouts, during which she pees herself and then leaves her vomit and urine-stained jeans around the flat for her long-suffering roommate to see. And she lies a lot. It’s kind of spoilery to say much about Megan and Anna but they behave in appalling ways as well.
So I go back to: How do you describe a book that keeps you engrossed with its plot but repulses you with its characters? (This isn’t rhetorical—would love to see your answers in the comments.) Is it accurate to say I enjoyed it when I was deeply annoyed while reading? But I definitely wasn’t bored and could appreciate Hawkins’s deft handling of language and story structure.
There’s also something to be said for female characters who own their rough edges and have no desire to be soft or people pleasing. If they were real, they probably couldn’t care less whether or not I like them and that’s a strength in itself.
My opinion of this book probably doesn’t matter, either, and it will likely garner many fans, based on the raves already out there (like the NYT’s). Just take the Train and judge for yourself.
Nerd verdict: Train is fast and suspenseful but carries repugnant people
Note: Most of the ARCs I receive are not as nice as the finished books, but this ARC came in very creative packaging. It was encased in a sleeve evoking a view from a window on a moving train. I’m a sucker for attractive packaging so this made want to read the book immediately. Well done, Riverhead!
Photo: Lauren O’Brien