Saturday, September 10, 2011

Train Travel

The less I know about a book when I start reading it, the happier I am. It's the same reason I hate watching movie trailers – they often reveal too much of the plot. So when I began Tessa Hadley's The London Train, I remembered vaguely that it had gotten decent reviews, but that's it.

I love riding trains, I love stories that take place on trains (sometimes romantic, sometimes sinister), I love London, so it was a natural. The main character Paul (we never get a last name), is a bookish writer/critic who lives in rural Wales with his second wife and two young daughters. He occasionally takes the train to London for radio interviews or BBC projects, but when his daughter from a first marriage abandons her university studies for a squalid flat in London with her Polish boyfriend, his trips become more frequent and his life more complicated.

I am following this well-written story when, about halfway through the book, I turn a page and discover that the London Train story has ended and a new one, called “Only Children” is beginning. I check the front cover. Yes, it clearly says “a novel”. But this second story is about Cora and her husband Robert and her sister-in-law Frankie. What happened to Paul? And Elise (second wife)? And Pia (older daughter)?

For several days I kept trying and failing to get into this second story. I was still annoyed that the book was two novellas disguised as a novel. But finally I soldiered on, started to get interested in this second cast of characters, enjoying Hadley's observant but unsentimental writing, when lo and behold, the two stories began to fold together in an elegant, unforced and satisfying way. Naturally the London train is involved.

So I guess the moral is that the adage about judging a book by its cover sometimes swings both ways.

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