-Are you an only child? Paul asked her.
-How can you tell?
-Me too. That’s why we understand one another. Two onlys. We want too much.
One would think I would have immediately identified with the two main characters in Tessa Hadley’s novel The London Train. Aside from that fact that Paul and Cora are “two onlys,” (as are I and my husband), they are both middle aged, restless in their current lives, dealing with the dilemmas of aging/dying parents, occasionally struggling with their intimate relationships. If not exactly my current situation, I should at least have some sympathy for it.
But somehow, I mostly felt annoyance, especially at Paul. Not long after his mother’s death, he hops on The London Train in search of his elder daughter, Pia (product of his disastrous first marriage), who has disappeared from college into the streets of London. When he finally finds her, pregnant, and living in a run-down flat with an illegal immigrant and his sister, not only doesn’t he make much effort at talking her to her senses, he leaves his own current wife and two young daughters and moves in with her! Seriously, I wanted to slap him.
And then there’s Cora, who is also running away from her career as well as from her husband, a much older university professor. Her restless unhappiness seems to stem from the fact that she’s been unable to have children with Robert, and now, faced with the loss of her childbearing capability along with the death of her parents, she has left her marriage and moved back to live in her childhood home.
The book is divided into two sections – Paul’s story is told in the first, and Cora’s in the second. It isn’t until we find out that their paths have converged with a chance encounter on The London Train, that the book really began to capture my interest. Still, the relationship that develops and the events that occur as a result were not wholly satisfying to me. In fact, the behavior of these “two onlys” seems to represent the stereotypical behavior of only children who do indeed “want too much” and are careless of others feelings as they go about getting it. And though there is some redemption in the offing for both Paul and Cora, there is much needless suffering that occurs before their respective revelations.
What kept me reading was Hadley’s writing, which was evocative and penetrating. The novel, which was long listed for the Orange Prize, is extremely perceptive about the human condition. The atmosphere of the work felt bathed in grey, and reminded me of the sooty, smoggy London streets. It captivated me and kept my eyes racing across the page like the train speeding along the tracks to its inevitable conclusion.
For other reviews on the TLC Book Tour, check out this list.