Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger

Originally published in 2020

Selena Murphy is commuting home on the train when she strikes up a conversation with a beautiful stranger in the next seat. The woman introduces herself as Martha and soon confesses that she’s been stuck in an affair with her boss. Selena, in turn, confesses that she suspects her husband is sleeping with the nanny. When the train arrives at Selena’s station, the two women part ways, presumably never to meet again.

Then the nanny disappears.

As Selena is pulled into the mystery of what happened, and as the fractures in her marriage grow deeper, she begins to wonder, who was Martha really? But she is hardly prepared for what she’ll discover…

Selena Murphy, the working mother of two boys, becomes the sole breadwinner in her family after her husband loses his job. She hires Geneva, a nanny, to look after the children and enable her husband to look for a new job but Selena has come to suspect that they may be sleeping together and, after hiding a camera, gets confirmation. Trying to figure out what to do she ends up confessing to a stranger on the train ride home about the problem, though she couches it as a mere suspicion. The stranger makes a comment about how maybe the maid might just disappear which Selena laughs off but before she comes to any decisions about what to do Geneva is reported missing and soon the police are at her door.

Confessions on the 7:45 came to my attention when I read some reviews that compared it with one of my favorite crime novels, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Reading it I can see why some connected the two, not least because Unger does this at several points in the story, directly referring to Martha as a ‘stranger on the train’ but beyond the chance encounter of these two women on a train, this is very much its own story with its own themes, structure and pace.

The book is told from multiple perspectives, some with obvious connections to each other and others where the link is not so obvious. These stories will inevitably converge by the end into a single, cohesive story and most share some common incidents, themes and ideas. The task for the reader is to anticipate those connections and work out how these different pieces will fit together.

I found some story threads to be quite interesting, particularly the chapters that follow Pearl, a teenage girl. Of all of the various characters whose perspectives we share, Pearl struck me as the most intriguing. Part of the reason for this is that her story appears the most disconnected from the others but it also reflects that there is some ambiguity in the relationships she forms and some of the events that happen to her, keeping us from being certain about what has happened to her and why.

Similarly I felt Geneva’s perspective on her affair and her own character was somewhat unexpected and more complicated than I expected it to be. While we do not spend much time with this character before they are reported missing, I think Unger does a good job of making her a more complex and rounded figure than just the other woman.

Some of the other characters’ perspectives however struck me as less engaging. I am chiefly thinking of the chapters that give a voice to the couple’s children. I felt those chapters did not do much to advance the plot or offer insight into either Selena or her husband Graham’s characters, making them seem rather redundant. In some other cases, such as the retired policeman, I thought that the chapters did serve a clear purpose in providing an external viewpoint on events or introducing a piece of information but they were not particularly dynamic or exciting.

Where I think Unger is much more successful is in the structuring of these different perspectives to explore this situation. The reader is given no clear indication of what has happened to Geneva and so the reader is left in the dark about whether she is alive or dead at all. Add in that there are some gaps in what we observe allowing for the possibility that one of our focal characters could be responsible and you have a pretty compelling situation to explore.

The eventual explanation is, I feel, one that the reader would have little chance of guessing at the start of the book yet I cannot really say it is particularly twisty or surprising (the only development that surprised me comes early in Pearl’s story). Instead I was struck by the sense that the book really sets up each development thematically so that by the time it happens the reader has already anticipated it and it feels quite inevitable. In most cases I found the answers to be quite satisfying and I appreciated how strongly Unger grounds these developments in her characters with each new discovery making them seem richer and more dimensional.

The other reason I think this story works is that it is easy to understand the conflict that Selena is experiencing about how to handle her crisis and empathize with her situation. While the decision to share her problems with a stranger is not a great choice, the feelings she contemplates are communicated very effectively. Similarly the book outlines her experiences with her husband’s infidelity and the struggles she has to maintain the image of the perfect family she wishes to project.

Thematically this is interesting too, particularly the novel’s questions concerning the images we try project of ourselves on social media and to those in our lives. While I do not think these observations are particularly challenging in themselves, they are developed thoughtfully and fit in with the broader themes of the novel quite comfortably.

While I do think that the story might have benefited from a little narrative pruning, I did appreciate the development of theme and character. While this is not perhaps as twisty and surprising as some other psychological thrillers, it is an engaging read that did a decent job of keeping my attention for an afternoon for which I was grateful.

The Verdict: Offers few surprises but develops its characters and themes well.