Two psychological thrillers have landed from across the pond to feed our fascination with stories about relationships gone bad -- when the games people play with each other's heads cross the line into criminality. Paula Hawkins' debut, "The Girl on the Train" (Riverhead, $26.95), is as tautly constructed as "Gone Girl" or A.S.A. Harrison's "The Silent Wife," and has something more: a main character who is all screwed up but sympathetic nonetheless. Broken, but dear.
We meet Rachel Watson on a commuter train home from London. She's drinking a canned gin and tonic and has three more waiting in a bag at her feet. She was already drinking too much when her husband ditched her for another woman, and since then she's gone off the rails. But because she doesn't want her housemate to know she's unemployed, she takes the train in and out of the city every day. On Fridays, her drinking blends in to the TGIF atmosphere; other days, she gets looks.
The train line passes right behind the house she lived in with her ex, which he now inhabits with a new wife and baby. A few doors down, there's another couple she often spots having coffee in their backyard -- she names them "Jess" and "Jason" and daydreams about their perfect life. One day, she sees Jess with another man and the next day, Jess is in the news: Her real name is Megan Hipwell and she has disappeared. At this point, Rachel becomes a full-blown stalker, inserting herself in bold, frightening ways into the investigation of the crime.
Rachel's descriptions of her alcohol blackouts, her rationalizations, her binges and her resolutions are as riveting and real as those in any addiction memoir. Early on, she recalls reading a book by a former alcoholic in which the woman describes having casual sex with multiple strangers she just met in a restaurant. "I read it and I thought, I'm not that bad."
The two other main female characters take turns telling their sides of the story as well: Megan, a slim blonde with a nasty past, and the new Mrs. Watson, Anna, a former real estate agent. Though Rachel is Hawkins' richest invention, Megan and Anna are complex and believable, too.
No matter how well it's written, a suspense novel can fall apart in the last pages, with an overly contrived or unbelievable ending. Here, "The Girl on the Train" shines, with its mystery resolved by a left-field plot twist that works, followed, surprisingly, by what you might call a happy ending.
"I haven't washed my hair for three days, I have mouth ulcers and a stye, I'm wearing yesterday's clothes pulled off the bottom of the bed in a hurry, we have run out of milk, teabags, apples and loo roll." This is Emma, protagonist of Harriet Lane's second novel, "Her" (Little, Brown; $26). Emma is the mother of a newborn and a toddler, a woman buckling under her domestic duties and the sheer grind of early parenting, driving her to copy into her planner the words of an 18th- century suicide note: "All this buttoning and unbuttoning."
Unfortunately, motherhood is not the most lethal force in Emma's life.
Emma has recently made the acquaintance of a woman named Nina, a svelte, successful painter whose own daughter is in her teens. Emma sees Nina as the lovely woman who found and returned her lost wallet, and she aspires to win Nina's friendship. She's bewildered when it comes easily -- what can Nina possibly see in her? Why would she want to help out with baby- sitting or smilingly attend a perfectly awful (and darkly funny) dinner party with Emma's tedious friends?
The construction of "Her" is just like "Gone Girl" or Showtime's "The Affair" -- back and forth between the two characters, often covering the same incident from their differing perspectives. Though Emma remains nerve-rackingly clueless until the last minute, the unhinged Nina gradually reveals the incident in their past that has caused her obsession.
Though the reason for the grudge seems a little shaky and the final pages of the book leave the reader hanging, Lane does motherhood noir -- the noir of nurseries with nightlights and tense twilit bedrooms -- as well as anybody. For example, here's a description of nursing: "e both know this is my job: to sit in an empty room holding this small unhappy thing close to me, allowing it to fasten onto my flesh, my milk pumping in, displacing the toxic silt which is waiting there in the plumbing. Dealing with that will fall to me, too."
Well worth reading, despite any grumbles about the ending.