The 6:41 to Paris: Jean-Philippe Blondel

“It’s crazy how once people turn forty friendships seem to disintegrate. They get transferred, they’re busy with their kids, you no longer share the same opinions–everything alienates you from people you thought would be close to you all your life. All that’s left are laconic email messages. Phone calls punctuated with long silences. Sporadic meetings.”

A few years ago, someone told me that if he’d known he’d live to age fifty, he’d have taken better care of himself. I thought the speaker was being funny–that is, until I looked over at his face and saw that he was dead serious. Anyway, that man, that comment came to mind as I read Jean-Philippe Blondel’s  short novel, The 6:41 to Paris. This story of middle-aged regrets, responsibilities  and disappointments is set on a train and told in a split narrative which unfolds over the course of the journey.

Chance brings Cécile, a successful 47 -year old business owner to take an early train back to Paris after spending the weekend with her aging parents. Cécile owns a chain of shops specializing in natural beauty products and she’s on the brink of expanding her chain even further. She’s trim, smartly dressed and has aged well. She’s sitting in the second class compartment when a faded middle-aged man sits next to her. At first she doesn’t recognise him–but then she realises that the man in the next seat is Philippe Leduc–her first love and the man who cruelly dumped her years earlier.

641 to parisIt’s not too surprising that Cécile doesn’t immediately recognize the man in the next seat. The Philippe of her youth was confident, good-looking and able to get any girl he wanted. While time has been kind to Cécile, Philippe has aged badly; he’s out of shape and seems defeated.  What happened? What went wrong in his life?

The interior voices of these two characters go back and forth as they recognize each other in horror and in Philippe’s case, in shame. Should they acknowledge their old relationship? Should they open up a past that neither of them wants to remember? As the train continues on its journey and Cécile and Philippe’s thoughts reveal fragments of their story, we see how pivotal their relationship was in forming the people that they’ve become.

While Cécile is admirable & a success, she’s not particularly likeable. There’s something rather cold and brittle about her, and while she moves efficiently through the world, there’s the sense that if you prick her carefully groomed surface, she’ll shatter into a million pieces. Sitting on the train she’s annoyed that she “wasted” a weekend with her parents, and she’s not sure if she’ll care much when they eventually die. Emotional disconnectedness is one of the things that first attracted her to her husband Luc, who now in middle age is “one of those aging, interchangeable, middle management executives–for a stationery company that is locating by the hour.” As for Philippe, he works in a superstore selling TVs and stereos, is divorced and has two children. His thoughts gradually reveal his emotional life, and the relationship he’s forged with actor Mathieu.

A great deal is made of Mathieu, the third main, yet absent character in this novel. Both Cécile and Philippe knew Mathieu in their youth, and they’re both (in their separate thoughts) surprised that this rather uninteresting, average young man became a famous actor. Here’s Philippe thinking about Mathieu:

I was only too aware of how our paths in life were heading in different directions. We had met at a time when he was merely a rough draft of the person he would later become, while I was at my zenith. He would keep rising, whereas I had begun to sink gradually. Every time I caught his face in a magazine, those were my thoughts. About failure. About destiny slipping out of your grasp.

And that’s what I enjoyed the most about this quiet introspective novel–how the choices we make forge the people we become. Some choices, as in the case of Cécile, are deliberate and life altering, whereas Philippe’s choices, although every bit as life changing, have occurred without him even noticing.

No one ever warned us that life would be long. Those easy slogans that make your heart beat faster, like “carpe diem” or “die young”–all that stuff was just nonsense.

No one told us, either, that the hardest thing would not be breaking up, but decay. The disintegration of relationships, people, tastes, bodies, desire. Until you reach a sort of morass where you no longer know what it is you love. Or hate. And it’s not as unpleasant a condition as you might think. It’s just lifelessness. With scatter spots of light.

As readers, we know that this seemingly simple novel must end with the train journey, but the author opts to leave the possibility of an unknown narrative arc stretching ahead. Both Cécile and Philippe have another choice to make. There’s Cécile ignoring Philippe and Philippe agonizing about whether or not to speak, so both characters face yet another life changing moment. The novel’s fascinating premise–two people reconnecting decades after a poisonous event–explores how incidents shape us in ways we don’t realize. In this instance, after fate threw them in each other’s path, both Philippe and Cécile are in control of the decision about how to handle this meeting. It’s not exactly a second chance, but it’s close. In some ways this aspect of the novel reminded me of Vertigo–a crime novel in which a character obsessed with a woman is given a second chance at love. Love isn’t in the cards for Cécile and Philippe but acceptance, forgiveness and closure are all possibilities.

Gert’s review

Review copy. Translated by Alison Anderson

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24 Comments

Filed under Blondel Jean-Philippe, Fiction

24 responses to “The 6:41 to Paris: Jean-Philippe Blondel

  1. This one might be a bit too close to the bone for me – middle aged regrets and all that (especially the quotes you chose). But it sounds interesting.

  2. JJ

    So….nothing like 4:50 from Paddington, then?

  3. It sounds excellent. I’ve long thought that the truly dangerous choices are the ones we don’t know we’re making. Nobody chooses (or few anyway) to neglect their partner, their children, but a thousand little choices to work a bit later or to take that supposedly important call add up to a choice all the same regarding family.

    I recognise the author’s name. Have you read others by him?

  4. Should have said, I love the cover. Simple but effective.

  5. One of your best, Guy, and thanks for the pingback to mine. I was interested in your take on Cecile’s relationship with her parents.The sharpness of her observation of them, the fact that she keeps going back to see them even though she doesn’t really want to, and the melancholy that pervades the weekend with them all suggested something deeper in her than that brittle surface you rightly identify. In fact one of the things that made me like the book straightaway was the writing about ageing parents. And I like what you say about the end – not exactly a second chance, but close. Can you see it as a film?

  6. This has been on my radar since Gert reviewed it, so I’m delighted to see a positive report from you as well. The contrast between active and passive choices sounds interesting. I’m fascinated by the way our lives can turn on various decisions (some of which seem fairly insignificant at the time).

  7. A simple idea for a story in some ways, but it sounds like one that was extremely well executed. That encounter on the train must have been excruciating.

  8. This sounds like a wonderful read … Covering the sorts of things that have been crossing my mind in recent years. I love Max’s comment about the decisions you don’t know you’re making. Then of course there are the decisions you don’t make which are decisions in themselves.

    I haven’t read the book but I was wondering about Gert’s comment that there’s something deeper to Cecile because she keeps seeing her parents despite the feelings she expresses while on the train. That may be so, but could it not also be a highly refined sense of duty and responsibility? Does commitment to that equate with “deepness”?

    • IMO Cécile has some issues that need to be resolved. She’s one of ‘those’ people who appear perfect on the surface.
      The idea of commitment to people we know is a sub theme in the novel. Cécile is on the nasty side when her thoughts are revealed about her parents, so she doesn’t come off as having a highly refined sense of duty because she’s so pissy about it. I felt like telling her ‘if you dislike your parents and resent the time they take so much, then don’t bloody bother.’

      • I thought it was to do with the fact that she knows at some level that you’re bound to the people you haven’t got any choice about, i.e. your parents. They are the only ones she hasn’t got any choice about- she could choose not to see them, but she can’t make them not an intrinsic part of her life as she can with everyone else, except her own daughter. And there’s a section where she imagines herself in the future and wonders whether her daughter will have the same attitude to her that she has to her mother. Those bonds are the only things she has tethering herself to where she came from and where she might be in the future.

  9. I’ve had this in my hands a few times – your review is just what I needed to finally get it.

  10. I’d like this one. I’ve never read Jean-Philippe Blondel but I should try this one.

    PS: the characters’ names: typical from children born in the end of the 1960s or early 1970s

  11. Tom Cunliffe

    Very interesting review Guy – it would be difficult to make a film of that one!

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