Thursday, March 17, 2016

THE 6:41 TO PARIS :: Jean-Philippe Blondel

"No one ever warned us that life would be long."

Imagine being trapped on a train with the worst nightmare from your past.

I wish I could remember where and from whom I heard about Jean-Philippe Blondel's The 6:41 to Paris, because that individual deserves all the credit for me reading it and passing along the joy. The blurb was very brief, but it (along with the page count of 146) was intriguing enough that I immediately requested the book from my library. I was not disappointed, this is a stellar work. If you were the one who wrote about it, please step up and take your kudos and my thanks.

The premise is simple, the execution sublime. Cecile is a successful business owner, on her way home from a stressful weekend with her parents ("There comes an age where you find yourself trapped between indifferent children and recalcitrant parents. That's all there is to it. I'm forty-seven years old. I'm right in the middle of it.").

The seat next to hers is the only one left on the train (there's a wonderfully spot-on passage about the pro and con psychology of this situation), and to Cecile's horror it is taken by Philippe Luduc. Horror because Philippe and Celeste have a past: four months of dating some 27 years ago that to describe as 'ended poorly' would be a severe understatement.

As the train gets under way, so does the suspense and tension. Cecile and Philippe pretend not to know each other, and the alternating visits with their internal monologues and emotions during the ride are nothing short of fascinating and excruciating. We visit their pasts and their presents, the emotion of both and the impact their brief, long-ago relationship had on each of them and who they became.

I'm guessing we've all had those moments, an experience, however brief, that scarred us and set us off on a different path, maybe impacting us well into the future and perhaps even in the present. I know I have. It was nothing like what happened between Cecile and Philippe, but it was enough that I felt a kindred understanding of this work. I wondered what I would do if I was confronted with Cecile's situation. I think I know, but that didn't make reading this masterpiece of emotion, psychology, and sociology any less taut or vivid.

Author Kati Marton put it perfectly when she said of this book (which she called "A taut, suspenseful psychological journey from which there is no escape"): "The 6:41 to Paris shatters any illusions that acts of cruelty committed in our youth are of little consequence later in life."

Despite its length, I could quote from this exceptional book ad nauseam (and I'm stalling because I know I have to try and pick just one below). Translated from French, I doubt it has lost anything in the language swap, but it makes me want to learn French just to read it in the author's native tongue.

STREET SENSE:  This brilliant little book will definitely be on my list of best reads for the year. Despite my fear that there was no way to bring it to a successful or satisfying conclusion, Blondel did so while at the same time leaving me knowing there was more and yearning for it. Genius.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  She hasn't reacted, either. She doesn't remember me. So much the better, in the end. I have to keep one thing in mind: most people have a 'delete' key which they will press at a given time, when their brain is about to overflow after all the misunderstandings and betrayals, all the hurt and disgrace - and when that happens, entire chunks of your existence disappear along with face, names, addresses, colors, everything goes out the window into the sewers of the unconscious.

Bonus passage!

The ant.
Do you know I still think about that, a lot?
You never imagine that certain phrases can stick, buried in your skin like splinters, and that at certain moments in life they come back and wreck everything.
My grandfather had fought at Verdun. He was very young. A shell exploded a few yards away from him. He had shrapnel in his legs all his life, and from time to time, with the changing seasons, a shell fragment would say, Give him my kind regards.
Those two words were my shell fragments.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This was a rare occasions where I knew I wanted to read this book before I had any clue what the cover looked like. I'm not sure if this one would have attracted me on its own or not. It does evoke some mystery, as it gives up little in the way of content. Those faces intrigue me. I'm not a huge fan of the color palette, but for some reason the cover still speaks to me. That may simply be hindsight love, but I'm ok with that.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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