This exciting thriller, by Paula Hawkins, focuses on the difference between the contented family lives one thinks one sees while watching suburban homes from a train, and the reality of the struggles and traumas these people actually go through. Rachel, a somewhat unattractive ex-wife, looks from a train at the suburb where she used to live, wishing she could have the apparently loving lives of the couple who lives a few doors down on her old street. She feels “women are still only really valued for two things—their looks and their role as mothers. I’m not beautiful, and I can’t have kids, so what does that make me? Worthless.” She feels so intensely about this that she says “I would have cut off a limb if it meant I could have had a child.” She also observes that “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.” Rachel feels shut out by the love she lost from her ex-husband, Tom, which makes her idolize family life even more.
In contrast, Anna, Tom’s new wife, apparently has everything she could want in a family. She says “a few years ago I would have hated the idea of staying in and cooking on my birthday, but now it’s perfect, it’s the way it should be. Just the three of us.” Family gives the characters meaning and happiness in a way that nothing else can. Anna says she sees people thinking when they see the three of them, “What a beautiful family. It makes me proud—prouder than I’ve ever been of anything in my life.”
But as the story goes on, Rachel realizes that the happy lives she thinks she saw are not really happy. She comes to feel that “everything I thought I knew was wrong, that everything I’d seen—of Scott, of Megan—I’d made up in my head, that none of it was real.” She had watched Scott and Megan from the train, out on the terrace of their house, and now Megan has gone missing, presumed dead. The story becomes a mystery, revolving around where Rachel had been on the night of the disappearance. Rachel cannot remember the details of what happened because she was drunk that night.
Megan struggles because she has become pregnant with the child of Tom, her lover and Rachel’s ex-husband. She fears more than anything losing Scott, her husband, saying “‘I don’t know if I can do it, I’m so afraid of being on my own again—I mean, on my own with a child.’” For Megan, as for most of the characters, being alone and without a stable, loving family is her greatest fear. But when she tells Tom about the child, he says, “‘You’d be a terrible mother, Megan. Just get rid of it.’” He not only rejects her, he dismisses her, and she says “All he wants is for me to go away—me and my child—and so I tell him, I scream at him, ‘I’m not going away. I am going to make you pay for this. For the rest of your bloody life, you’re going to be paying for this.’” Again this shows the theme of the possibility and hopefulness of love and family life, contrasted with the sadness, rejection, and lack of love that is their reality.
When Rachel sees an armchair she and Tom purchased when they were first married, she remembers “how excited I was when [the armchair] was delivered. I remember curling up in it, feeling safe and happy, thinking, This is what marriage is—safe, warm, comfortable.” She feels so sad that circumstances made her lose that safety, that it was just a temporary illusion, lost to another woman. After it is revealed that Tom did terrible things (not to give a spoiler), “He smiles—that wide, beautiful smile that used to make me melt.” The “greatest happiness I have ever known—my life with him—” is lost forever to the horror of their relationship, what Rachel knows about him.
In the end, Rachel watches from Tom’s yard a passing train, in which she “can see faces in brightly lit windows, heads bent over books and phones, travelers warm and safe on their way home.” Rachel has become more than just a girl on a train, she has become part of the story of the suburban homes. Maybe she would have been happier to allow the chaos of their lives to pass by from the train, rather than inserting herself in their dramas.