The Girl on the Train has three female first-person narrators: Rachel, Megan, and Anna. It is organized into numerous sections, each headed with one woman’s name. While it is constantly shifting among the narrators, more than half the sections feature Rachel. Each section is divided by date, including the day; most are during summer 2013, but some go back as early as May of the previous year. Each daily entry is further divided by time of day: Morning, Afternoon, and/or Evening. The organization is not chronological but begins with a Rachel section from July 2013.
Rachel takes the train from Ashbury to Euston (in London, England) and back again every day. As the train crawls along the old track, Rachel looks out the window, especially at the houses behind which it passes. She generally drinks on the train, favoring canned gin-and-tonics or little bottles of wine. Rachel prefers the trip to either of her destinations. Finding comfort in “the sight of strangers safe at home,” she sometimes glances at, but rarely communicates with, other passengers.
Her favorite house is in the town of Witney: Number 15 Blenheim Road, the home of two strangers, “a perfect, golden couple.” As the novel begins, she calls them Jason and Jess because she does not know their names. They are young, good-looking, healthy people, and Rachel envies their life together. She often observes them on the terrace behind their house. One day Rachel sees another man, whom she has never seen before, embrace and kiss Jess on the terrace. She is outraged at this behavior, in part because her own husband, Tom, from whom she is now divorced, had cheated on her.
On the train, Rachel also passes Number 23 Blenheim Road, where she had lived for five years with Tom. She finds it unbearable to look but cannot help herself. When they divorced, he stayed in the house, and he now lives there with his second wife, Anna; their affair had contributed to driving Rachel and Tom apart. The couple has a baby girl, Evie.
Rachel’s drinking, sometimes to the point of blacking out, was another factor in ending their marriage. One night she attacked him with a golf club. Now, more than two years after their divorce, she often calls Tom on the phone, sometimes several times a day. He does not pick up or respond to her messages, but one day he calls her back and tells her she has to stop and urges her to go to AA. Several days later Anna calls, also urging her to stop calling.
Rachel lives in the town of Ashbury, in the spare bedroom of a duplex owned by her old college friend, Cathy, who took her in when she got divorced. Cathy’s boyfriend, Damian, is often there, and Cathy worries about Rachel. Rachel lost her job but did not tell Cathy. She spends the day in London wandering around, sitting in parks, and drinking.
Megan and Scott are the real names of the couple in Number 15. Megan formerly worked in an art gallery that closed and occasionally babysits Evie during the day while Anna goes out. But she soon quits working for them, lying about having gotten another job. She begins seeing a therapist, Kamal Abdic, about her insomnia and panic attacks. She starts having an affair, but the man is not named; the reader learns his identity very late in the book.
One morning Rachel wakes up cut and bruised. Of the night before, when she had blacked out from drinking, she only vaguely remembers a red-haired man on the train. On her phone is a furious message from Tom, complaining that she has frightened Anna by going to their house. When Cathy, who had slept at Damian’s, gets home, she calls Rachel out over her drinking and messiness and threatens to evict her.
The next day on her phone's news feed, Rachel sees a notice that a local woman has gone missing—the woman she calls Jess, who is really Megan. She went missing on Saturday night—the same night Rachel blacked out.
The remainder of the novel is concerned with solving multiple mysteries. Where is Megan? With whom is Megan having an affair? Who is the man who kissed her? Are these men the same man? What happened to Rachel that night? Did she do something to Megan? And if so, why?
As the novel goes back and forth in time, the reader learns why Megan sought therapy, including her grief after her brother was killed in a car accident. She reveals that Scott is possessive and jealous, even going through her computer, and they often argue.
A few at a time, the author provides clues about Megan’s disappearance. Rachel starts to investigate and tries to recover her memory of that night by going to Witney. She remembers stumbling around an underpass beneath the train tracks, dazed and bloody, and has further vague memories of the red-haired man. When the police come to Cathy’s house to question her, she learns that Anna saw her that night, near Megan’s house.
Rachel later goes to the police station and tells them her suspicions about Megan’s affair. The detective tells her that Anna has complained about her past harassing behavior, which Rachel denies. Continuing her snooping, Rachel goes to Scott’s house and lies to him, saying that she is Megan’s friend, and shares her suspicions about the affair. She learns that the man she saw was Kamal Abdic. Under the guise of seeking treatment she makes an appointment with the therapist. Through this meeting, the reader learns that Rachel began drinking seriously when was not able to get pregnant.
The media dredges up the information that Megan had previously had a baby, whom she may have killed. Soon Megan’s body is found in a shallow grave in the woods; she was pregnant when she died. Elsewhere, the police dig up an infant’s body near her former residence.
Rachel continues seeing Dr. Abdic, confiding her concerns about her drinking and blackouts. Scott is furious when he learns that she never knew Megan and has been playing detective. Rachel then believes he did kill Megan. Tom contacts her and even meets with her. He tries to convince her that she had attacked him that Saturday night, and he injured her defending himself.
In the end, it is Anna who unravels the mystery. She finds Megan’s phone in Tom’s gym bag. At the same time, Rachel remembers that she did see Tom, but not alone—he had been with Megan. She realizes he has lied about everything, including her violent behavior. She goes to their house to warn Anna and encourage her to leave. It turns out that Tom was the man Megan had the affair with, and he was the father of the baby. He killed her to cover it up. When Tom comes home, he confesses and then attacks Rachel. Not only does she fight back and get away from him, but Anna—after making sure Evie is safe upstairs—joins her. Together Anna and Rachel kill Tom, twisting a corkscrew into his neck. When the police arrive, they cover for each other.
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