Rachel begins her narration on July 5, 2013. She describes her sights and thoughts on a train ride. In the morning, she sees a pile of clothing abandoned near the tracks, she commiserates with other passengers who rue the train's lateness, and she watches houses pass by outside the train window. In the evening, she drinks a gin and tonic on the train, mentioning a man named Tom (2) and "the old days" (3) without giving specifics. The narration skips to July 8, after the weekend Rachel dreaded for all the empty time it provided. This time, Rachel describes a specific house that she often watches when the train stops at a signal: "number fifteen" (4). Rachel has given the inhabitants of this house names in her head - Jess and Jason - and has constructed a romantic narrative about their life together. Rachel is again drinking on the train, which she notes is less acceptable on a Monday evening than on a Friday, alerting the reader to her problem with drinking. On Tuesday morning, she looks at the pile of clothing beside the tracks again, thinking about the annual number of deaths by train and searching for a blood stain on the clothing. She sees Jess outside number fifteen again and keeps her eyes fixed on her as the train moves on so as not to see another house - specifically, number twenty-three Blenheim Road, where she used to live, and where she only says that a woman named Anna, who was at one point pregnant, lives. As the train rolls out of Whitney Station and toward Euston, she sees a building painted with an e e cummings quote: "LIFE IS NOT A PARAGRAPH" (7). In the evening, on the train home, she describes living with a "half-friend" (8) from university named Cathy. After getting a divorce from Tom, she moved into a flat with Cathy for what was meant to be no more than six months but has turned into two years. Cathy is a nice person, but, like with most things in her life, Rachel feels a lack of control in her living situation.
On Wednesday, Rachel does not see Jess or Jason and is disappointed. In lieu of getting to see their activities, she imagines what they might do when out of her view: practice medicine overseas, work in the fashion industry, paint, laugh. She recognizes that she has created these lives down to their fake names, but she can't help imagining their happiness; as she narrates, "They're what I lost, they're everything I want to be" (10). In the evening, Rachel sits across from a businessman working on his computer; he sees her looking at him while drinking wine on the train and grimaces at her. Rachel ruminates on this look communicating how undesirable she has become; she has become puffy from drinking, gained weight, not been sleeping well, and recently overheard Cathy's boyfriend Damien saying he didn't know anyone desperate enough to go out with her. On Thursday, Rachel awakens with a bandage on her finger, remembering that the night before she had bought two bottles of wine, tried to make a steak dinner for herself, cut her finger early in the process, and then fell asleep while bandaging the wound. She woke up much later to Cathy and Damien asking her to clean up the mess of meat and blood she left in the kitchen. As she had only drunk one bottle of wine, she stayed up when they went to bed, drinking the wine, watching TV, and finally deciding to call Tom - four times. On the train, she spots Jess, but "she is heavier, weighed down" (13). She remembers now that she did not just leave a message asking Tom to call her back, but begging him and saying she misses him. She tries to reassure herself that this is not the most embarrassing thing she has done while drunk, citing specific instances in which she berated someone's wife at a party, made a hole in the wall with a golf club, and was asked to go home from work "after a three-hour lunch" (13). She worries about what is wrong with Jess all day, and on the evening train she gets a call from Tom telling her to stop calling and to go to AA. Listening to this, Rachel peels off her bandage and pushes on her finger, making the cut ooze blood.
The narrator now changes to Megan - Rachel's "Jess". The reader is brought back in time to over a year ago in May 2012. Megan narrates a scene very much like the ones Rachel watches from her window; Rachel loves to sit outside and listen to the trains pass by. This morning, as she listens to the train, she pretends that the people on the train are going to exciting places, that she is going to exciting places, but the spell is broken when Scott (Rachel's "Jason") calls her from inside. In the evening, Megan waits for Scott to get home and reflects on her day; she was filling out an application for a fabrics course when she heard screaming from down the road: "What are you doing? What are you doing with her? Give her to me, give her to me" (17). Megan is bored since she doesn't have a job; she alludes to her past job at an art gallery. Megan's next entry is written three months later in August. She now has a job as a nanny for a family down the street - Anna and Tom, Rachel's ex-husband. Her husband is happy with this idea since he believes it will make her want children herself, but she feels claustrophobic watching the baby under Anna's intense watch and can't wait to "wash the baby smell off" (19) at the end of the day. In the next entry, August 16, Megan quits the babysitting job out of the blue. Megan is almost manic with her ability to reinvent herself, calling herself "Runaway, lover, wife, waitress, gallery manager, nanny, and a few more in between" (20).
Skipping ahead another month, in the next entry Megan again longs to get away from home and thinks about the adventurous dreams she had with her brother, Ben, before his untimely death in a motor accident. With pep, Megan announces that she will start going to the therapist. In the evening, she is at the therapist's office, waiting and gradually losing her patience. However, she loses all of her annoyance when she meets soothing-voiced Dr. Kamal Abdic. They do not cover too much of Megan's life in the meeting, talking mostly about her insomnia, and Megan seems to flirt with the therapist, mentioning her "vices" (24) coyly and asking where he's from. In her next entry, since she says she hasn't been getting out much. Megan goes for a walk early in the morning but fears running into Anna or Tom, though when she doesn't run into either "the part of [her] that can't resist a bit of drama is actually quite disappointed" (26). In the evening, Megan is already feeling jittery when Scott calls to say he has to work late; Megan goes for another walk and catches the eye of some man (presumably Tom) on her way back home.
The narration returns to Rachel in July 2013. She is on the train again, head cloudy from alternating nights of drinking and deep sleep. She thinks of her past life with Tom, but banishes those thoughts when she sees Megan (or "Jess") in her garden with a man. However, with a shock she realizes that this man is not "Jason" but another man, and while she is trying to come up with ideas about his identity she sees them kiss. Reeling, she is sent back to the painful memories of finding out Tom was cheating on her by going through his emails. Megan obsesses furiously for the rest of the day and, to make matters worse, has an uncomfortable and revealing encounter at lunch. She bumps into a few employees of Huntingdon Whitely at a coffee shop, who she must lie to about having an interview in the area. In the same afternoon, Anna calls Rachel's cell to tell her to stop calling Tom. Rachel starts to polish off bottles of gin and tonic, thinking about how Anna moved directly into the house she vacated. Rachel falls asleep in the sun and wakes up with ants crawling on her and teenage boys laughing at her; she rides the train home but does not catch a glimpse of house number fifteen on her way.
In the morning, Rachel wakes to the sounds of Cathy's Saturday morning cleaning routine. She waits for Cathy leave to the house, laying in bed with painful thoughts of her past life with Tom and his current life with Anna. Since Cathy doesn't go out, Rachel stays in her room most of the day, finally going out in the late afternoon, drinking over five drinks, and getting on the train to try to have a look at Megan and Scott's house. Rachel's thoughts are fast and scattered due to the drink - she sees a ginger-haired man looking at her on the train but cannot tell if he is smiling or sneering at her, and then there is no more information until Sunday morning. On Sunday morning, Rachel wakes full of confusion and dread. She has blood matted in her hair and can't immediately find her phone or handbag. She is naked, though in her own bed, her legs and arms have bruises on them, and her lip is split. Seeing Cathy's bed empty and made, Rachel believes that Cathy missed all of this by staying the night at Damien's. However, while attempting to clean up her soiled clothes and after finding her phone in the pocket of her pants along with blood-stained tissues, Rachel throws up on the stairs and then drags herself to bed again because she fears passing out. She checks the messages on her phone in bed and finds one from Cathy simply saying she'll be staying at Damien's and an angry one from Tom saying that he's driving around looking for her because she has scared Anna. Confused and frustrated at not remembering the night before, imagining a scene in which she attacks Anna, she falls asleep. She awakens to a furious Cathy, realizing with a start that she left urine-soaked clothing and a pile of vomit in the common area of their apartment. Rachel rushes to clean it up but Cathy tells her that she has four weeks to move out and retreats to her own bedroom to fume by herself. Rachel looks at her phone to see another message, again from Tom, this time checking on her kindly; she cries for a while before composing a text apology. Crawling into bed, she falls asleep again trying to remember what happened.
The narration skips to Megan, now in October 2012. She is sitting outside in the cold with her teeth chattering after a stressful day. She had a panic attack while on her way home and then cut her hand while trying to climb the fence to get near the train tracks; she told Scott this was from breaking a glass but he doesn't believe her and gets angry at her. Sitting outside, she calls a man and gets first a sleepy response and then only an answering machine. She does not specify who she called but leads the reader to believe it is Kamal Abdic by segueing into thoughts of moving up her next therapy appointment. In the evening, Megan reports that Kamal encouraged her to start keeping a diary, but she laughs this suggestion off since Scott keeps such a watch over what she does, even checking through her internet history often. About two weeks later, Megan writes that she has cheated on Scott, apparently on at least two instances, comforting herself with the idea that it's okay for men and that she is being true to herself. She has set up a system in which Tara, a woman from Pilates class, will vouch for her when she is off with this man, and when Scott asks her about Tara she gives short answers and finally resorts to distracting him with sex.
Back to Rachel in July, Rachel is given an official note of eviction by Cathy and then goes off again to ride the train, crying on her way and trying to think of the moment her life began to decline. She traces her life with more detail than before - her father's death followed by being "saved" (51) from her grief by Tom, five years of marital bliss and successful employment while living in house number twenty-three, and her thoughts turning to having a child. She begins writing a to-do list including going to the library, emailing a past employer for a reference, emailing her mom, and perhaps attending an AA meeting. In the evening, she is knocked down by a taxi while sober and a junior doctor gives her stitches in her eyebrow while asking questions without judgement about her situation. She asks him to call Cathy, looking for a bit of pity, and then fills the reader in on what distracted her so greatly that she walked directly into traffic while sober - Megan Hipwell has been reported missing.
In beginning to read The Girl on the Train, the reader should note the parallel scenes that are shown and set up for later. By using three different narrators and skipping around in time, Hawkins creates suspense and opportunities for different perspectives on an event. For example, the scene in which Megan hears screaming down the road may fly by during the first read, but it is later an important moment in understanding the relationship between Anna and Rachel. In addition, Rachel sees Megan kiss another man and then later reads about her disappearance, which forces the reader to wait in anticipation for Hawkins to reveal these events through Megan’s eyes.
Throughout the beginning of the novel, the reader is lulled by Rachel's routine, checking in every day during the morning and the evening. This causes an even stronger disjuncture when Megan's narration is introduced, which jumps back a year in time and then progresses in fits and spurts, skipping months. In Megan’s narration, Hawkins is able to show how wrong Rachel was about “Jess” leading a perfect life. Megan’s contemplation of herself as “runaway, lover, wife... a few more in between” (20) reveals just how little Rachel or the reader knows of Megan’s life and true nature.
Hawkins shines as an author in her writing about Rachel’s different mental states, creating an interesting situation of unreliable narration. This is especially intriguing as Rachel makes her way from sober to drunk and then to hungover, narrating the world differently throughout. For example, sober Rachel thinks, “I could go to the gym. I could rewrite my CV” (36), but while drunk she narrates, “The light is bright, but I can’t see all that well. (Vision doubling. Close one eye. Better.)” (37). Then, hungover and grappling with whether she blacked out the night before, Rachel thinks, “Something happened, something bad? There was an argument. Voices were raised. Fists?” (38-9). The differences between Rachel’s narration in these altered states call attention to the possibility that she is not seeing everything correctly, perhaps even when sober, and cloud the truth as to what happened on the Saturday night of Megan’s disappearance from both Rachel and the reader.
Hawkins begins to draw a web of parallels as each of the few characters in the novel introduce bits and pieces of their pasts and develop their relationships with one another. Megan and Rachel have parallel current situations - mourning their current joblessness, feeling restless in their living situation, and attempting alternately to deal with and escape from their pasts. However, in Rachel seeing Megan kiss another man in her backyard and immediately jumping to thoughts of Tom with Megan, equating these betrayals, Megan and Tom are also paralleled in a way that foreshadows their later entanglement.
As the book is set in 2012 and 2013, it is realistic that characters communicate by digital means such as email and text messaging. However, this digital communication is important as a theme since it affects the ways in which people are able to communicate. For example, the paper trail left behind by digital communication leads to Rachel discovering Tom's affair with Anna, and the communal sharing of information on the internet and on social media allows Rachel to discover Tom's happy posts on Facebook. Furthermore, the ease of digital communication enables Rachel to make poor decisions when drunk and then realize these mistakes the next morning.