The beginning of March is a good time to have a birthday. A birthday gives you a reason to celebrate and ignore all this leftover snow, slush, and mud. Everyone yearns to see the first daffodils poking their heads out and to experience that first spring day when everyone doffs their coats and goes for a stroll in the soft air and sunshine. One way to celebrate a birthday, or even an unbirthday, this March would be to receive or gift yourself one of my two diverse book choices this month: Amy Poehler’s recent memoir and compendium of life wisdom Yes Please and Paula Hawkins’ terrific new thriller The Girl on the Train.
Like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Yes Please is an upbeat, enjoyable read with a heart from one of Saturday Night Live’s former prominent funny ladies. Poehler loves what she does, and her enthusiasm emanates from almost every page. From growing up in a small blue-collar Massachusetts town to starting to do improvisational theater at Boston College, she documents the beginning of her journey doing what she loved while learning from people she admired.
After graduating college, Poehler followed a friend to Chicago, home of the famed Second City improv troupe, where she arrived in time to see the last show featuring one of my favorite comediennes with whom she is often confused, Amy Sedaris. Sedaris was finishing out her run there with Steven Colbert and Steve Carell, and Poehler was star-struck. She soon found her own group to practice with, the ImprovOlympics (iO). In Chicago she met her so-called platonic “life partner” colleague Tina Fey and a host of others who helped her hone her craft. Poehler, then-boyfriend Matt Besser and other improv friends moved to New York City, where they formed the troupe that grew and flourished to become the now-famous Upright Citizens Brigade. Her work got on TV, and she eventually got an audition that led to her job at SNL in 2001, right after Tina Fey’s hire.
While Poehler speaks of career moves, she also doles out humorous, positive advice like a sassy, tough girlfriend who will help you get through “this,” whatever “this” might be. Also, she swears like a stevedore just to let you know she can. She openly discusses the difficulties she experienced from divorcing Will Arnett, along with her love for their two sons. Poehler offers genuine praise to many of her highly talented co-stars and gives an inside look at life on SNL and in one of its stars’ breeding grounds, the Chicago improv troupes. She also raves about her stint on Parks and Recreation, one of the great follow-up TV shows of all time for an SNL alum. I really enjoyed her appreciation for collaboration in the art of improv, comedy, and life.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is a radically different psychological journey. Hawkins has managed to create a tense, enthralling plot that keeps the reader guessing until the last pages. Its tone reminded me of several writers, books, auteurs, films, and series I have enjoyed, such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and the sublimely wonderful nastiness of many books by classic crime writer Patricia Highsmith, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley.
While Gone Girl was a good thriller, for once I preferred the movie, with its haunting score, chilly atmosphere, and great casting. Hawkins’ book is better written than Flynn’s and I was hooked from its very beginning. Recently I saw a great recent BBC police series on Netflix, The Fall, starring Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson. It has a similar tone, suspense, and complicated characters. A reader enjoying Hawkins’ book might find that series entertaining.
In The Girl on the Train, a divorced, unhappy woman named Rachel rides a packed commuter train in and out of London at the same time every day. When the train stops every day at certain points, she can see into the back gardens of a number of Victorian houses near the tracks. She sees a perfect-looking couple she fancifully names Jason and Jess, and imagines their jobs, relationships, and lives. Jess takes her coffee out on the terrace in the mornings, and lonely Rachel looks forward to seeing their ideal-looking relationship on her trip in and out of the city.
Rachel escapes into her reverie in part because only four homes down is the lovely house she once lived in with Tom, who dumped her and married a woman named Anna, with whom he has a daughter. Rachel rents a small room in a friend’s duplex and drinks as much as possible to fill her empty hours, embarrassing herself and repeatedly drunk-dialing her ex-husband or stumbling about near his house after blacking out. She cannot leave them alone or move on because of her sadness. Soon she finds herself involved not just in their lives, but also in the lives of the first couple, “Jess and Jason,” once “Jess,” whose real name is Megan, disappears and the police get involved.
Paula Hawkins cleverly changes viewpoints and time frames in separate chapters narrated, perhaps unreliably, by Rachel, Megan, and eventually Anna after Megan’s disappearance. This is a very dark, highly satisfying read, concise and speedy for its 323 pages. It also makes for a top-quality and psychologically complex novel to read on public transportation because of its short chapters. So if you’re heading to work or play on a plane or, perhaps more appropriately, on a train, enjoy!
Written by: Miriam R. Kramer