Friday, May 13, 2016

An anonymous encounter? Or a blast from the past?

The 6:41 to Paris by Jean-Philippe Blondel,              translated by Alison Anderson
This cover definitely did
NOT "grab me."
After reading Lauren's review at Malcolm Avenue Review,
I decided to check this book out of the library and read it.
While I enjoyed it, I'm not gushing about it as much as Lauren did. In my humble opinion this was a good read.
I enjoyed it. However, my memories of it were not all 
that great until I began reviewing it to compose this post. 
That is when I realized I liked it 
more than I had remembered.
This demonstrated to me that although it takes forever for me to write reviews, it is time well spent, as it proves to be an effective way for me to remember 
much more about the books I've read, especially the impressions they have left on my heart and soul. 

The book alternates between Cécile and Philippe and we get bits and pieces of their lives, both now...and then. The then is what appears to be of particular significance to them both, perhaps more so to her than him... You see, they were lovers 27 years earlier. And although they've ended up seated next to each on this train on a Monday morning, each pretends not to recognize the other. While I could understand their reticence of each to acknowledge the other's identity, let alone speak, I personally get frustrated with people who do that. Either speak or don't, but don't spend the next 1-2 hours seated next to the person wondering...and thinking about him/her and the past. Personally, I rarely don't speak in such situations and I feel I'm much more comfortable with at least attempting to communicate. But that's just me. (Just call me shy and introverted! NOT! :))

I could relate very much to Cécile's relationship with her parents and her sense of 'obligation' to visit regularly, though I personally would refuse to give up a whole weekend every month! That is a bit overboard by my standards, but to each their own. Their 'silent' treatment, the sense of guilt, both instigated by yourself and what the parents pour upon you. My mother was exactly the same way. What I did was never good enough. Never. Though I was much more independent and rebellious than Cécile. (Yes, I am referring to my adulthood. :)) I weaned my mother off those expectations by simply refusing to conform to her desires. I maintained contact, but much more on my schedule than hers. I'm sure that sounds selfish, but honestly, my mother would have done (actually, did) do just about everything to get me to kowtow to her every whim and desire. For example, she was determined that I would live with her in the aftermath of my divorce and "empty nest" home, sans children. She even went so far as to make herself homeless!! I kid you not! She sold her house without having anywhere to live. She tried to guilt-trip me into "house-hunting" with her. When she needed a place to stay, I allowed her to move in with me, but was never home. I work full time, so that was an easy excuse, and then I did things with friends most evenings. However, it was still an awful experience. She went through my house and garage and threw things out. She kept trying to change things around in my kitchen cabinets and rearranging things in my house. She knew no boundaries and never did have respect for anyone else...well, that's not entirely true, she just had no respect at all for me, her only child/daughter, and certainly very little (though at least some) for other people. It is at the end of one of these guilt-ridden once-a-month visit-the-parents weekends that Cécile finds herself on a train back to Paris on a Monday morning as she returns to work. As Philippe had concluded in his own thoughts, "With parents, you have to make do with what you've got." So very very true. I guess the same could be said of children...

I cracked up at Cécile's insecurities as she sat by herself. She's glad...relieved, really...but then...well, what is wrong with her that nobody wishes to sit with her? I had to laugh as these thoughts went round and round in her head. So typical, isn't it?!? We don't really WANT someone to sit there, and yet what is it about us that no one wants to sit with us?!? Such insecurity. It still makes me chuckle, even as I write this. 

We learn that Philippe has observed Cécile from afar on several occasions throughout the years, but has never made a move to communicate with her. And...although he sat in this seat, after recognizing her...
Here's what I'm going to do. 
Act as if I don't know her--which is true, actually, we dated for 
three or four months twenty-seven years ago, what's that amount to? 
Nothing, nothing at all. She hasn't reacted, either. 
She doesn't remember me. So much the better, in the end. (30)
However, she had recognized him as soon as she looked in his face as he sat down. But...well, as he thought to himself, this was--"awkward." 

As she surreptitiously observes Philippe out of the corner of her eye, she thinks to herself:
He looks pretty shattered to me. (40)
He is shattered. One day, Philippe ran into his friend's mother and began visiting her on a regular basis thereafter--he needed the companionship. 

One day, Mathieu found out. I thought it would make him angry. It was worse than that. 
He felt pity. And it's true, basically, the pity was all I deserved--a fortysomething guy taking refuge at the home of his childhood friend's mother, talking about life, how lame can you get. (61)
And yet, just because this person happens to be your friend's mother, that doesn't preclude establishing a friendship, does it? I laughed as Cécile was checking herself out in the mirror in the bathroom, thinking to herself, "You're a hundred times better than he is." Ah...those comparisons! And Philippe had noted that she had "changed for the better." Amazing what a difference 27 years can make! Basically, these two have traded places throughout their adulthood, Cécile has achieved success while Philippe has sunk into near-despair. While her marriage may not be the happiest of relationships, it has lasted and work is good. Philippe, on the other hand, seems to be floundering in all aspects of his life. He is divorced, due to his wife having an affair with his friend, though he realizes their relationship had ceased being happy for either of them long before that. He has a very distant relationship with his children. And work, well, his work seems not to be very fulfilling, to say the least. 

Then, she embarrasses herself. She is silently mortified that she cannot locate her ticket and must search through her purse, she despises this stereotypical behavior of a woman needing to dump everything out of her purse to find anything. And, of course, this is exactly what Philippe is remembering about her from the past, as it happens yet again...

At the same time, stereotypes die hard, and above all, they do contain an element of truth. 
How could we have foreseen that over a quarter of a century later we would 
go through that town again, sitting side by side, pretending not to know each other? (55)
As she considers their past relationship, she realizes the truth.
I knew what made me want to be with him: vanity. 
To parade around on the arm of a handsome man. 
To show other people that even when you're insignificant, you can still manage to do such a thing. I was perfectly aware that the relationship wasn't headed anywhere and 
that it would end soon enough. But not the way it did. No not like that. (44)

I felt so sorry about Cécile's memories of all the 'disgust'/abuse she had witnessed during her childhood: her grandfather hitting her grandmother, even though he wasn't even drunk or angry, it was "just his way"; then their neighbors, her best friend's parents, him verbally abusing his wife, calling her all kinds of names like 'whore,' 'slut'; and finally the guy who was stalking her and accosted her on the street one day and the kind man who defended her and sent the kid packing just as his hand was raised to hit her. Of course the kid managed to spit on the street and call her "whore" as he rode off on his moped. 
All that disgust.
All the instances of disgust you experience simply by virtue of being a girl. 
And that night, you added one more, Philippe Leduc.
A pretty significant one, too. 
Never had I felt like such a burden.
Or so humiliated. (119)
Ah, that 'being a girl' can make you an easy target. As she remembers her success in arousing him when his "flag would fail," so to speak, and  thinks,
I knew that he liked this about me. My discretion. My patience. Then I would take over, ever so gently. That's what he needed, gentleness. That's why our affair lasted for months, and not days. That's also why I was so angry with him afterward. (45) 
Ironically, Philippe also remembers this as one of the positive aspects to their relationship and especially about her. 

Finally, just as the train pulls into the station they both break down and begin talking. She mentions having seen a picture of his friend, Mathieu, in a magazine, and he tells her of his trip to see that same person yet today, that he is now gravely ill. As they tell each other of their children he mentions that it's strange,
"What's strange?"
"When we were younger, we never imagined that we'd have kids one day." (143)

...and then she does something, she places her hand on his shoulder, the way a father would, 
or a friend, or a brother, and it's very unsettling. In a kindly tone, she adds, 
"It's much too late to get to know each other again, and I don't take this train very often. 
I don't know if we'll meet again. Take care."
"Take care."
He's always hated that expression. (143)
Philippe decides to try anyway...
"No...I think...I don't think that's a good idea."
"What makes you so sure?"
"I'm not. I'm not so sure. It's just that this sort of thing happens all the time, 
people who knew each other briefly a long time ago and they run into each other, 
and there's nothing more to say, you think about it for a few minutes and 
then you go back to your routine, there's no reason why you should change it." 
"You basically go on taking care of things."
"Yes, that's it."
"I hope you'll have a thought for me before you die." (144-145)
I couldn't help but think how pitiful Philippe sounded in that last was a heart-stopper.

As she walks away, she considers... 
...that's not good, not to take care, not good at all.
Then, ever so slowly, she stops. 
She is next to car number three. 
She doesn't turn around...
She has stopped. 
She's not taking care... 
I can understand her refusal to re-establish a relationship with Philippe, 
considering what he did to her during their London trip those many years ago.
And yet...
I don't know if I would have reacted in the same way Cécile did or not.
It is not easy to forgive...and yet...shouldn't we?
And does she or doesn't she? Turn around.

This was quite a poignant read. It was a quick read.
I imagine this book will reignite memories of failed relationships for most readers.
I'm convinced that we learn a lot from such relationships.
How about you? And your past relationships... Would you agree?


  1. Wow! You really dug in, I'm impressed. It's funny how sometimes you sit with something a while and it sinks in more than you realized. I'm glad you liked this as much as you did. I also loved the passage about the Catch-22 situation of the seat next to you being open. I've totally lived that one!

    1. I agree, Lauren! I think we've all been in that situation at least once in our lives--that inner quandary: Yes, we're glad to have the whole seat to ourselves...and yet...exactly why AREN'T other passengers choosing to sit by us?!? :) And, yes, I am typically fairly thorough with reviews. It's my opportunity to try to remember what is meaningful to me. :) Thanks for stopping by!