"She's buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. Not more than a little pile of stones, really."
Dear readers, if you know anything about me at all, you should know that I'm a total book snob. I can't help it. I think the books I like are better than all the other books out there. As soon as a book gets too popular, I imagine that it is horribly written and wouldn't interest me. I still haven't read 50 Shades of Grey and I WON'T DO IT. I'm sorry--I don't know why I am the way I am.
That being said, a friend of mine recently suggested "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins. This is a friend that I would (and have a number of times) trust with my life, so I decided to take her word for it. And I wasn't disappointed at all.
Set in modern day London, this suspense novel opens with Rachel, an alcoholic recent divorcée, doing what she does best: riding the train and being crazy. Rachel takes the same train everyday, lying to her roommate, saying she's headed to work when she was actually fired a while back for drinking on the job. Instead Rachel pretty much just rides the train back and forth, maybe she gets off and has some drinks, maybe she wanders around. Everyday as the train stops in a particular neighborhood, Rachel will get close to the window and attempt to sneak a peek in the lives of two strangers, who she has named Jess and Jason, and has become way too fascinated with while dealing with her own depression. Because she can only see them from afar as they sit on the patio, sharing glasses of wine and making smoochies at each other, Rachel imagines their lives are perfect. These voyeuristic tendencies aren't helping her mental state at all, as seeing this couple usually reminds Rachel of when she was happily married, before her inability to conceive a child drove her to start drinking. When drunk, Rachel has a habit of blacking out fast, a habit that ruined her marriage and a habit she still hasn't broken.
If that wasn't bad enough, the situation is made all the worse when you realize that Rachel's ex-husband, Tom, lives just a few houses down from this blissful couple, in the same house Rachel used to live in. Tom now lives with his mistress-turned-wife, Anna, and their precious baby girl. Everyday as the train picks back up, Rachel always tries her best not to look. She doesn't want to see the house where she was once happy, can't stand to see another woman standing in the window, holding a child--the one thing she could never give to Tom. But she's often drunk and can't help but look.
Soon we learn that, like most fantasies projected on people we've never met, Rachel's idea of Jess and Jason's life is all wrong. Not only are their names actually Megan and Scott, but they aren't as happy as they seem. The chapters told from Megan's point of view hint at a marriage on the rocks--a wife who can't stop dreaming about fleeing away and starting over and an increasingly frustrated husband with trust issues who can't seem to make her happy. One day as the train passes by their home, Rachel sees Megan/Jess kissing another man on the patio. As a victim of an affair herself, Rachel is infuriated that Megan/Jess would do something like that to ruin her marriage (I told you Rachel was crazy). She begins binge drinking in the middle of the day. That's when we lose Rachel.
We find her again the next morning, in her bed with a bad hangover and blood on her hands and face. She has missed calls from Tom, her ex, and a voicemail that makes it clear that Rachel showed up in her old neighborhood last night--unwanted, drunk and angry. Although she can't remember a thing, Rachel apologizes for whatever she's done and said. She tells Tom she's really going to get her life together this time. Just when you think that's the end of Rachel's most recent mess: in the next morning's paper she reads that Megan/Jess is missing. Knowing the police will suspect Jason/Scott, because they always suspect the husband first when a woman goes missing, Rachel goes to the authorities to report that she saw Megan/Jess kissing another man, introducing a new possible suspect. Unable to stay in her lane, Rachel gets mixed in with the investigation, all the while holding on to a sneaking suspicion she saw something important that night, something other than her angry ex-husband and his terrified new wife. Something having to do with Megan/Jess. Maybe it was while riding the train, maybe once Rachel's drunk ass arrived in the neighborhood. But of course, she can't remember.
Told through the voices of Megan, Rachel and even Anna, Rachel's ex-husband's new boo, the book shows just how messed up a person's life can be behind their happy facade. From Anna we hear how she's sick of Rachel--all the late night drunk calls, unexpectedly showing up at her door and once even almost stealing her baby--another memory Rachel doesn't have. From Megan we learn about her past, her therapy sessions, and the identity of the man she was kissing on the patio that day. And from Rachel, we learn how much it sucks to have something to say while the police and everyone around you regards you as an unreliable witness and a fat, pathetic drunk.
As the clues in this suspenseful novel unfold, I can honestly say I had no idea how it was going to end until it ended. That doesn't happen often. Every character, with the exception of Rachel's extremely patient roommate Cathy, is sort of a horrible person. Rachel and Megan aren't the only ones with dark secrets, selfish tendencies and possible motives. I thought they all did it at some point. While I won't call this novel a life-changing work of art, it does get points for how gracefully it moved my suspicion back and forth. No, it's the husband! No, it was the lover! No, it's was drunk Rachel! NO, IT WAS THE BABY! When it finally came down to it, maybe I should've seen it coming. Don't worry--I won't ruin it for you!
In a possibly offensive tribute to Rachel and her vice of choice, I decided to make gin and tonic cupcakes, with homemade gin and tonic icing as well. There's plenty of recipes on the web for this sort of thing, but you know me, I like to it when it comes to adding booze to cupcakes. So although I included a recipe, I encourage you not to follow it. Add as much gin to this batter as you want, keeping in mind the more liquid you use the runnier your batter will be.
And fix yourself a drink or two while you bake. I sure did.
Despite (or because of?) my heavy hand, these cupcakes turned out so good. I'd never cooked with tonic water and was surprised to see it didn't create super fluffy cupcakes, but still dense and flavorful. I think I owe that to the flour. The lime zest is my favorite part--it adds a pop of color and balances out the sweetness just right.
The Girl on the Train: 4 stars
Gin and tonic cupcakes: 5 stars
FOR THE CUPCAKES:
2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
zest from 1 lime
12 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
1¼ cups granulated white sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
¼ cup lime juice (from 1 lime)
¼ cup gin
1 cup tonic water
FOR THE GIN AND TONIC FROSTING:
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
4 cups confectioners sugar
zest from 1 lime
juice from ½ lime
2 tablespoon tonic water
2 tablespoon gin
1. Heat your oven to 350 degrees and line 2 12 cup cupcake pans with cupcake liners.
2. In a medium bowl, combined the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda and lime zest.
3. In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment cream the butter and sugar until light and airy about 2-3 minutes.
4. Beat in the eggs one at a time until combined and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.
5. Stir in the lime juice and gin.
6. Mix in half the flour mixture, then the tonic and finally the remaining flour until thoroughly combined.
7. Bake for 18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
1. Mix together the butter and confectioners sugar on low speed. You'll probably want to do this with a good stand mixer.
2. Add the lime zest, juice, tonic water and gin. Bring up the speed on your mixer and mix until the frosting comes together and is nice and smooth.
3. Bring the speed up to medium high and mix for 2-3 minutes or until the frosting is light and fluffy.
“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts.”
“The holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mould yourself through the gaps.”
“I can’t do this, I can’t just be a wife. I don’t understand how anyone does it—there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that or look around for something to distract you.”
“There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.”
“'When did you become so weak?' I don’t know. I don’t know where that strength went, I don’t remember losing it. I think that over time it got chipped away, bit by bit, by life, by the living of it.”
“I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I’m off-putting in some way. It’s not just that I’ve put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me, can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.”
Leave me a comment and let me know if you like the recipe, liked or hated the book, or just say hey!
Happy baking, everybody!