Friday, July 5, 2013. As Rachel Watson rides the morning train into London, she spots a pile of clothes by the tracks, which disturbs her. Her ex-husband Tom always told her she had an “overactive imagination”—with that in mind, Rachel tries to calm herself as the 8:04 train from the suburb of Ashbury to Euston Station in London picks up speed. In spite of the rickety tracks, Rachel loves riding the train: twice a day, she gets to watch the houses go by and get a glimpse into other people’s lives.
The opening scene of the novel introduces Rachel—and her state of mind. She is attuned to detail, yet she doesn’t trust her own mind because of things her ex-husband told her about herself—things that may or may not be true. She observes the world around her carefully, yet her own life is on autopilot. Rachel is a woman of many contradictions—and Hawkins uses the symbol of the train to hint at Rachel’s desire for change, excitement, and escape.
That evening, on the train back to Ashbury, Rachel opens a canned gin and tonic. As she takes her first sip, she lets the taste transport her back into memories of her first-ever vacation with Tom, when they went to Spain. Rachel polishes off the gin and tonic quickly, but she’s not worried—she has three more. “TGIF,” Rachel thinks to herself ironically. It is a Friday—yet in spite of the beautiful weather forecasted for the weekend, Rachel’s only plan is to drink in order to fill the empty 48 hours ahead of her.
Rachel longs for the past and hates her present—she exists now only to pass the time. She tries to numb herself to her present circumstances by drinking to excess. Though readers don’t yet know what has brought Rachel to this dark place, it is clear that Rachel is in distress and on the brink of self-destruction.
Monday, July 8, 2013. Rachel is back on the 8:04—but she wishes that rather than going into London, she could stay in the comfortable train seat all day. About halfway through her journey each day, there is a signal stop on the line, and the train comes to a halt. If Rachel sits in the right seat of the right carriage, she can catch a long glimpse of her favorite house, number 15 Blenheim Road in Witney. Number 15 is a two-story Victorian overlooking a garden. Rachel has named the occupants of the house, whom she sometimes spies from the tracks, “Jason” and “Jess.” Jason and Jess are a “golden” couple: Jason is dark-haired and handsome. Jess is tiny, pale, and blond. Jess is often out on the deck in the mornings—but this morning, she is not, and Rachel imagines all the places she could be.
Rachel uses Jason and Jess—the perfect ideal of marital happiness—to salt the wounds of her failed marriage. The fact that Rachel rides the train each day to glimpse this “golden” couple cements the idea of trains as a symbol of the desire for change and escape—Rachel wishes she could be living a life other than her own. Meanwhile, the simple detail of Jess deviating from her normal routine subtly suggests that there’s more to her than meets the eye. Perhaps her seemingly idyllic life isn’t as perfect as Rachel imagines it is.
That evening, on the train back to Ashbury, Rachel opens a bottle of wine and pours it into a plastic cup. She recognizes some other frequent commuters on the train and hopes they aren’t judging her for drinking on a weeknight. As the train rattles along, Rachel waits to catch a glimpse of Jason and Jess once again—but neither of them is on the deck or in the garden. Rachel cannot remember the last time she had meaningful contact with another person.
Rachel’s reflection about her lack of meaningful interaction characterizes her as a profoundly lonely person. She drinks on the train to numb herself, and she finds escapism and vicarious pleasure in observing Jason and Jess.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013. Rachel notices that the pile of clothes from last week is still lying on the tracks; she remembers reading somewhere that being hit by a train can rip one’s clothes off. At the signal stop, Rachel sees Jess standing on the patio. Rachel recalls when she herself used to live on Blenheim Road—a few doors down, at number 23. Rachel tries very hard not to look at number 23 during the daily stoppages—catching sight of her ex-husband’s new wife, Anna, watering the roses or taking care of her new baby fills Rachel with pain.
Hawkins continues plumbing the dark depths of Rachel’s psyche. Trains are an ongoing symbol of escape, so by having Rachel think about a moving train hitting someone and ripping their clothes off, she hints at the consequences of escapism. For women who long to escape their current circumstances and assert their independence, there are physical, sexual, and existential threats. By mentioning Rachel’s pain about Anna’s perfect experience of motherhood alongside the dark image of the clothes beside the tracks, Hawkins hints at how difficult it is for women to “have it all.” For every life like Anna’s, there’s also a life like Rachel’s, lived in the shadows and on the fringes.
That evening, on the 5:56 back to Ashbury—a slower train than the morning one—Rachel dreads returning home. Rachel is a lodger, or sub-letter, who lives with a very kind friend from university named Cathy. The two of them are not very close—yet Rachel has been living in Cathy’s flat for two years. In spite of how long she’s lived there, Rachel still feels like a guest in someone else’s home. She feels she has lost control not just of her physical circumstances but of the “places in [her] head” as well.
Rachel’s relationship with Cathy is friendly but distant. Rachel doesn’t feel any true connection to Cathy and seems to resent Cathy’s nice, accommodating personality. Rachel and Cathy are not the same kind of woman—and Rachel hates being contrasted against someone who embodies feminine care and generosity better than she does each and every day. Meanwhile, Rachel’s feeling that she’s lost control of “places in [her] head” echoes Tom’s opinion that she has an “overactive imagination.” Regardless of whether or not this is true, it does suggest that she feels a lack of agency over her own thoughts and memories—which is perhaps related to her alcohol dependency.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013. It is a stifling hot morning on the train. Rachel looks out the window for Jason or Jess during the signal stop, but she cannot see either of them. She wonders what the two of them do for work—Jason, she surmises, could be a doctor. The boldly dressed Jess, she believes, is some kind of stylist or artist or photographer. Jason and Jess, Rachel feels, are everything she lost—and everything she wants to be.
Rachel continues to try and lose her thoughts in escapist fantasies, using the train as a kind of midpoint or neutral space in which she can allow these dreams to deepen and expand. She seems to idolize Jess despite not knowing her, wishing that she had Jess’s confidence and seemingly happy relationship.
That evening, Rachel is sweaty and uncomfortable as she rides the train home. She anxiously watches an expensively dressed man sitting across from her type on his computer. When he looks at her, she senses distaste in his face. Rachel knows she is not a “desirable” woman like she used to be: she has gained weight, and her face has grown puffy from drinking. One night recently, she overheard Cathy and Cathy’s boyfriend Damien discussing the possibility of trying to set Rachel up with a friend of theirs—Damien, however, said he didn’t know anyone who would be “desperate” enough to go out with Rachel.
This passage cements the fact that Rachel has been told she is undesirable and lovable—and that she has come to believe that these things are true. Rachel has low self-esteem and a fear of not measuring up to men’s fantasies of how women should be, which seems to fuels her alcohol dependency. Yet whether the source of these anxieties stems from within, from society, or from the people in her life (or perhaps all three) remains to be seen.
Thursday, July 11, 2013. On the morning train, Rachel picks at a bandage on her finger. Last night, after drinking a bottle of wine, she cut herself while trying to cook dinner. After cutting her finger, Rachel went upstairs to tend to the wound—but she fell asleep and left the uncooked meal downstairs to rot. When Cathy and Damien came home, Cathy asked Rachel to clean up the kitchen, which was covered in blood. After doing so, Rachel drank another full bottle of wine and fell asleep. This morning, her phone tells her that last night she called Tom four times over the course of the night—but she doesn’t remember what she said in the messages she left him.
In this passage, Hawkins shows how Rachel’s low self-esteem about her failure to embody a feminine-enough identity fuels her drinking, which leads to more behaviors that cross society’s lines of acceptable female traits. Hawkins wants to show that Rachel is trapped in a vicious cycle. Meanwhile, the gaps in Rachel’s memory about calling Tom further suggest that she doesn’t have much control over her own thoughts or actions. This, in turn, contributes to her disrupted sense of self.
As the train comes to the signal, Rachel spots Jess on the patio and notices that Jess seems sad. Rachel waits for Jason to emerge onto the patio, but he does not come outside. Rachel wills herself not to look toward number 23—but she cannot stop herself. She can’t see inside the house, but she imagines Anna playing with her baby, washing up, and cooking breakfast. Rachel closes her eyes and remembers the message she left for Tom last night: she told him that she still loved him. Rachel knows she is going to feel terrible all day, yet she is comforted by the fact that this is not the worst thing she’s done while drunk. In the past, Rachel acted out in public, hit the walls of her house with a golf club, and got fired from work after getting too drunk during lunch with a client.
Again, Rachel’s unhappiness and low self-esteem seems to be rooted in her inability to live up to women like Anna who successfully embody the role of wife and mother. The reader also learns that Rachel’s drunken antics are nothing new—in the past, she’s done far worse things than leave emotionally vulnerable voicemails. This doesn’t make Rachel’s most recent lapses in judgement any less embarrassing, but it shows that Rachel has developed her own method of judging her darker behaviors. Rachel believes that as long as she’s not approaching rock bottom, she’s relatively fine—even if she’s still engaging in self-destructive behaviors.
That night, on the train home, Rachel finds that she has been unable to stop thinking about Jess all day. She wonders why Jess looked so lonely this morning—and where Jason could have been. She imagines what they must be like together and all the different ways in which they might take care of each other. Rachel’s phone rings. Startled, she answers it—and finds Tom is on the other end. Tom asks Rachel to stop calling him. In a concerned voice, he urges her to get herself together and go to some AA meetings. Rachel hangs up the phone without saying a word. She pulls the bandage off her finger and presses her thumbnail into the wound as two young girls watch in horror.
Rachel is seemingly fixated on Jess because she at once idolizes her and empathizes with her unhappiness. This passage cements the idea of Rachel as a woman trapped in a vicious cycle of self-harm. She loathes herself for being dependent on alcohol, for being attached to the past, and for being unable to change her present or invest in her future. It seems that she has lost the core of who she is and is struggling (and failing) to get it back.