Mini-reviews: The Girl on the Train, The Silver Star, A Drink Before the War

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2014. ebook. 336 pages.)

In a nutshell: The Girl on the Train is a suspense/mystery featuring an alcoholic recently divorced woman named Rachel who gets herself involved in a missing-person case in her old neighborhood. The narrative is also told from the missing person’s perspective – Megan – chronicling the year or so before her disappearance. There are also a few first-person segments given to Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband.

My thoughts: I liked that Hawkins didn’t spare the humiliating, despairing and desperate aspects of Rachel’s alcoholism. Rachel is constantly crossing the line, such as creepily lurking by her ex-husband’s house and deceitfully insinuating herself into the confidence of the missing person’s husband. She is not someone that you would trust or expect to solve the mystery, but by virtue of being where she shouldn’t be, she might actually know key information. I thought that was a pretty bold approach.

I didn’t guess the solution to the mystery, thanks to the author’s misdirection, a bit of trickery that seems contrived in hindsight. Still *SPOILER* the reveal that Rachel was gaslighted throughout most of her marriage was chilling.

All in all, I thought it was a solid suspense novel. It kept me interested. The casting for the movie adaptation seems excellent: Emily Blunt as Rachel and Rachel Ferguson (Mission Impossible 5) as Anna? Yes please. Haley Bennett was recently cast as Megan, but the only time I’ve seen her in a film is when she played the pop star ingenue in Music & Lyrics, so I don’t have a bead on how well she would do in the role.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls (2013. Hardcover. Scribner. 267 pages.)

In a nutshell: When Bean and her older sister Liz are abandoned by their mother, they take a cross-country bus to their estranged uncle’s house in Virginia. In Virginia, they discover family history and seek to settle in, but their new life is threatened when they defy the “big man” in town, Jerry Maddox, the mill foreman.

My notes: I’m a huge fan of Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle and I also liked Half-Broke Horses, the novel based on the life of Walls’ grandmother. Unfortunately, The Silver Star is not a good novel. It had a promising start: I liked the resourcefulness of the girls, and was invested in their adjustment to their new life in Virginia. The school system in their new town had just been integrated; Bean connected with her father’s family, and these elements would have – should have – been enough for a perfectly fine tale. However, I think the book went all wrong with the Jerry Maddox courtroom drama plotline. It sucked out all the atmosphere that had been pleasantly taking shape. Bean’s character becomes increasingly less believable as she spouts off ideas and insights that seem way ahead of her time and age. And then the book delivered its ending way too neatly and conveniently for my tastes. In short, The Silver Star was a disappointing follow-up to Walls’ previous work.

A Drink Before the War (Kenzie & Gennaro #1) by Dennis LeHane (1994. Paperback. Mariner. 282 pages.)

In a nutshell: Private eyes Patrick McKenzie and Angie Gennaro are hired by powerful men in Boston to find a cleaning woman who they claim has made off with important documents. When the simple case turns suddenly violent, McKenzie and Gennaro discover that the case has put them in the sights of a prominent gang leader. Further complicating matters, Boston itself is on the verge of a gang war.

My notes: I’ve never read LeHane before, though I’ve seen at least one movie adapation of his books (Mystic River). I enjoyed this novel. I liked that McKenzie and Gennaro aren’t shy of getting their hands dirty. That can be the fun of private eye stories, as opposed to police procedurals (which I also like). The investigators’ web of acquaintances – from journalists to McKenzie’s uber-violent but loyal bodyguard of sorts – fill out the gritty vibe of the book. The private investigators see a lot of action in the novel, including a car chase scene through a landscape of urban decay.

Angie Gennaro as a character seemed a little too filtered through McKenzie’s gaze, since the first-person narration was from his perspective, but overall I enjoyed them as a team. Though rather 1990’s in its emphasis and terms, the themes of race and power in A Drink Before the War were resonant with this year’s headlines.

I would read more of LeHane’s work, and more from this series. Later Kenzie & Gennaro books were made into movies that I have not seen: Gone, Baby, Gone and Moonlight Mile. I don’t think the first three or the fifth books have ever been adapted.


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4 responses to “Mini-reviews: The Girl on the Train, The Silver Star, A Drink Before the War

  1. olduvai

    I know what you mean about Silver Star. I wanted to like it so much. And I did at first but then the whole Maddox thing just put me off. I think mostly because I could see it coming and was really dreading what was going to happen

  2. The Girl on the Train was another one of those books that I failed to resist the hype, and regretted reading it in the end. I just felt like the damaged women and abusive men were shells designed to move the plot rather than well-drawn character studies. And unfortunately I guessed the ending. So there goes the one thing it had going for me – suspense. I had an inkling and then when the (spoiler) ex comes on so pathetically to her in the car? Groan. But I seem to be one of the few who did not enjoy it so please disregard my grumpiness… 🙂

  3. Shame that Walls’s fiction isn’t as good as her non-. I wonder if it’s just a function of having worked in one medium for a long time, and not yet being perfect at it. Ie I’d be interested to see if her future novels are any good.

  4. olduvai – The Maddox storyline was definitely telegraphed. I had a similar dread.

    Frances – Yeah, I can definitely see what you’re saying about the shell characters. I’ve seen other reviews that have pointed out other imperfections or problematic areas and I can’t say that you or they are wrong. I gave it a 3/5 on Goodreads because it kept me interested throughout, but it’s not going to be in the best reads of the year for me or anything.

    Jenny – You’re probably right. With the non-fiction, and even with the barely fictionalized Half-Broke Horses, it was a different sort of plot-writing, drawing from actual life events. Hopefully, her plotting will be better for her next book.

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