Author: Tessa Hadley
Release Date: May 24, 2011
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Literary Fiction; Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Publisher: Unsettled by the recent death of his mother, Paul sets out in search of Pia, his daughter from his first marriage, who has disappeared into the labyrinth of London. Discovering her pregnant and living illegally in a run-down council flat with a pair of Polish siblings, Paul is entranced by Pia’s excitement at living on the edge. Abandoning his second wife and their children in Wales, he joins her to begin a new life in the heart of London.
Cora, meanwhile, is running in the opposite direction, back to Cardiff, to the house she has inherited from her parents. She is escaping her marriage, and the constrictions and disappointments of her life in London. But there is a deeper reason why she cannot stay with her decent Civil Service husband—the aftershocks of which she hasn’t fully come to terms with herself.
Connecting both stories is the London Train, and a chance meeting that will have immediate and far-reaching consequences for both Paul and Cora.
My Thoughts: The London Train by Tessa Hadley is actually comprised of two shorter books, best thought of as novellas: first, The London Train and second, Only Children. Both are about middle-aged individuals, Paul in the former and Cora in the latter. Each are coping with troubling crises, trying to find their way. We learn the two novellas are loosely connected in Only Children. My reaction varied depending on where I was in the reading. I was confused, incensed, bored or intrigued while reading this book and I had some difficulty getting through The London Train novella because I didn't like the character, Paul. Now that I've finished reading and thought about it for a while, The London Train is a realistic, intriguing, well written commentary on human behavior.
Paul's widowed mother died in the opening pages of The London Train and, as her only child, Paul must finalize things at his mother's home and make arrangements for the funeral. It quickly becomes clear Paul is out of his element: "...he must be so careful to do the right thing, but it wasn't clear what the right thing might be." Yet when his wife, Elise, who Paul has called about his mother, offers to come and help, he says no. Ms. Hadley slowly, subtly, is letting us know what kind of man Paul is. He refers to his mother's death as "...the ordinary, expected, common thing..." and adds that it's a "...release from a burden of care." So it's really no surprise when, in the next paragraph, we learn "he had not visited her as often as he should." but this is understandable if regrettable and happens to many adult children of elderly, ill parents. Its when Paul admits "He had been bored, when he did visit", we feel We have no choice but to convict him being at best selfish, at worst, cruel.
Ms. Hadley has created, in Paul, a character that many of us might not want to associate with. He's very human, rationalizing his bad behavior. Who among us can deny that this is a universal trait? His honesty is probably what makes most of us uncomfortable, since most people take their less savory elements and sublimate them or flat out deny their existence. For example, while making love with Elise, Paul fantasizes about his pregnant daughter's 28-year old friend. He feels some shame about this middle-aged cliche, so what does he do? Does he focus on his wife while making love to her? No! Instead he tries conjuring up the woman he had an affair with a few years earlier! All of which he freely admits to himself.
Paul is an extremely flawed human being with a long list of repugnant qualities. And so it is to Ms. Hadley's credit that I wanted to continue reading The London Train. She has created some engaging secondary characters such as Pia, whose continued presence in Paul's life intrigued me. She is Paul's daughter from his first marriage, pregnant and living in an illegal sublet in London with her boyfriend. Paul doesn't know Pia very well and hasn't been a good father to her. Ms. Hadley very effectively shows us how Paul's egotism and self-centeredness colors his perception of others through his relationship with Pia. Paul's judged her harshly because while growing up Pia was very different than he was at her age. Instead of being obsessed with politics and ideas, Pia was "...anxiously shy, wrapped up in the tiny world of her friends and their fads, devoid of intellectual curiosity.". Rather than try to understand Pia, Paul condemned her for not being a mini version of himself, calling her "...stolid, sulky, unyielding...". Paul may be put off by Pia's quiet, reserved manner and facial piercings but admits that when he used to take her to visit her grandmother, Pia was patient and kind to her. This surprised Paul because he was irritated by his mother's behavior, especially her tendency to repeat herself. The result is he's unable to empathize with Pia or comfort her while she is upset about her grandmother's death. Instead, Paul's surprised she's affected so much.
It's difficult to understand why Pia allows Paul into her London life when he's been primarily absent until now. Through Paul and Pia, Ms. Hadley explores the complexity of father/daughter relationships. There's a powerful bond between them and Pia's willing to give Paul another chance to be the father she needs. She's facing motherhood, a new experience, and feels alone and uncertain. Paul's disinterest and ignorance of who Pia used to be enables her to let him in now.
As Paul feels unstable and uncertain about life after the death of his mother, caring for Pia gives him something to focus on. Paul, ever the self-centered male, envisions himself as Pia's rescuer. But we are willing to grant him this bit of selfishness if he's there for Pia. Ms. Hadley plants hope in our minds that Paul will be a better man. But then she cleverly and cruelly reminds us that people rarely change who they are as Paul makes another selfish, cruel decision without regard for the long-term consequences, something he's done before. We remember, with a gasp, a part of the story Pia doesn't know. We realize Paul's just is not there for Pia and probably never will be. Paul is a very real, very flawed human being with few redeeming qualities even in the face of his daughter's need.
In Only Children, we are introduced to Cora, a middle-aged woman going through a difficult time in her life. She, too, is flawed and, like Paul, makes a very bad choice without regard for its long-term effects. Unlike Paul, Cora struggles with the implications of her decision, almost destroying her life as a result.
Cora lives in Cardiff, Wales, in her childhood home bequeathed to her after her mother's death three years ago. Cora recently redecorated the house, resigned her teaching job, left her husband and their home in London. She has essentially begun a new life. Although Cora seems stiff, formal and uncomfortable when her best friend and sister-in-law Frankie comes to visit with her children, it's apparent that Cora isn't an unkind person but in the throes of a life crises and struggling to stay afloat. Frankie represents Cora's old life, one she's trying to break free of because she has too much pain and unhappiness associated with that time.
Cora is a much more sympathetic character than Paul but, like him, she rationalizes her behavior. Ms Hadley writes compellingly of Cora's breakdown following her mother's death and the intense pain that caused her to shut down. As Only Children progresses, we understand that Cora is over-whelmed by life. She and her husband were trying to have children in the years before her mother's death and Cora had been undergoing fertility treatments. Her inability to communicate with her husband or anyone else and intense feelings of failure resulted in Cora making a decision she never could have imagined.
Ms. Hadley keeps us interested in an otherwise "regular person's" life with her ability to throw curve balls. She does this effectively with Cora, snapping her out of her self-centered whirl pool of pity. Throughout Ms. Hadley shows she is well aware of the exigencies of real life and the impact of choices and events, large and small, on human beings. She tells compelling stories, writes very real characters without the need for embellishment or extraordinary occurrences, and keeps you reading whether you like a character or not, which is a talent that deserves attention.
Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Harper Perennial for a copy of The London Train and the opportunity to read and review this book.