“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.
It’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.
Review copy. Translated by Alison Anderson