The Girl on the Train: A Must Read Summer Thriller…And a Sobering Commentary on Substance Abuse?

The Girl on the Train, written by Paula Hawkins, is a New York Times best seller, currently #1 on the list right now, which seemed like a great beach read. I settled into my beach chair under my favorite palm tree, shading me from the harshest of the sun’s rays. Looking out at the boats and the waves…perfect. I hadn’t finished a book in a while so I was looking forward to reading and being swept away.

What I found was as expected—a book told from multiple point of views that made for a tense “who-done-it?”. What I didn’t expect was the searing portrait of a woman suffering from alcohol addiction.

I have seen it all before. The blackouts. The tearful apologies the next day—apologizing for things you don’t even remember doing. The protagonist, Rachel, comes home from a typical night of drinking and is convinced something is not right. The next day—a woman is dead. What follows is her trying to reconstruct the evening.

Rachel is convinced that she may have done something wrong—maybe even something terribly wrong. “Something happened, I know it did. I can’t picture it, but I can feel it,” she says. Haunting.

It has happened to me so many times before. I couldn’t help flashing back to my own life. How many times did I get in the car and drive after drinking? It felt so innocent. I was okay, right? It had to be—otherwise the truth is shameful. Years later, every once in a while, in a pool of regret, I have actually wondered if I could have committed a hit and run. Had I ever driven blackout drunk? I am not 100% sure. I couldn’t have. I didn’t have a dent in my car. I hadn’t heard any stories—and it sure would have been a story in such a small town. And, yet I couldn’t escape the feelings of doom. I still can’t.

The book is peppered with statements like “I never learn…” and “How did I find myself here?” I found myself more engrossed by the portrait of Rachel than trying to figure out the elusive killer.

Alcohol addiction affects millions of people and it is sometimes a hard illness to ascertain. Because alcohol is legal, it is easy to dismiss my previous (or someone else’s) drunk behavior as funny or just Kate being stupid or simply having a bad night. How do we determine whether it is someone just enjoying alcohol in a social setting or abusing it (even in a social setting)? There is no denying that when you hide bottles in your home, as Rachel did, that you are probably an alcoholic. But how about all those individuals who party to excess on a regular basis?

This book gave me a lot to consider—yes, the thriller aspect was fun. But, what really sticks with me isn’t the game of “who-done-it?” but the fact that the book will be remembered as a thriller—carefully crafted with the literary device of substance abuse as one of the main driving forces for creating the mystery. Part of what it should be remembered for though—is a portrait of a societal problem—alcohol.

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