The 6:41 to Paris by Jean-Philippe Blondel
Published by: New Vessel Press
Genre: World Literature
Reviewed by: Alex
What to Expect: Remember that old lover—you know the one—that one. The one who should have treated you better. Well, guess what? Twenty-seven years later, when you’ve become all that, they’ve become the post-it on the bottom of your shoe. Except, knowing this doesn’t feel quite as good as expected and, unfortunately, much of what you’ve become is based on the short time you’d spent together. Now what?
Plot: Cécile, a stylish forty-seven-year-old, has spent the weekend visiting her parents in a provincial town southeast of Paris. By early Monday morning, she’s exhausted. These trips back home are always stressful and she settles into a train compartment with an empty seat beside her. But it’s soon occupied by a man she instantly recognizes: Philippe Leduc, with whom she had a passionate affair that ended in her brutal humiliation thirty years ago. In the fraught hour and a half that ensues, their express train hurtles towards the French capital. Cécile and Philippe undertake their own face to face journey—In silence? What could they possibly say to one another?—with the reader gaining entrée to the most private of thoughts. This is a psychological thriller about past romance, with all its pain and promise.
Review: The 6:41 to Paris refers to the time of departure for an express train leaving a small town in the Champagne region. More specifically, this is the one leaving on a Monday morning. Because it is ninety minutes long with no stops, it’s chockablock with commuters who spend their work week in Paris and come home for the weekend. Not all who board the train are regular commuters. Cécile, who visits her parents twice a month, opted to return to Paris Monday morning rather than Sunday night and Phillipe took the early train to visit a friend in the hospital. A result of their last meeting—one in which one was deeply hurt and humiliated by the other—was a reversal of fortunes. The mousy, passive Cécile is tall, thin, elegant. An entrepreneur. She’s handsome rather than pretty, which, who cares, she turns heads and she’s admired. On the other hand, the handsome rake Phillipe has let himself go. Not just himself; his family, his friends, and hopes for a career as well.
I have long held the reason I read fiction is to live someone else’s lifetime in the time it takes to read the book. As the reader, we gain the wisdom of watching someone else make everything from creepy come-ons to fiendish comebacks to terrible, terrible mistakes. At least, this is what I tell people who are annoyed with me for wanting to go out for a drink when I’ve got my nose in a perfectly wonderful book. That said, having read The 6:41 to Paris, I’m reminded of my other main reason to read fiction. And that is, to remind myself of those things I have done—those things I get embarrassed about or, perhaps, deeply regret—and of how I either haven’t resolved them or still have more to learn. Not that I haven’t gone to therapy, extensively journaled, or confided in a stranger sitting next to me at a bar, but sometimes, the only way to get to your own essential truth is by way of observing how someone else gets to theirs.
The author drops breadcrumbs of long ago events, each remembered as Cécile or Phillipe might have. This is not, however, how memory works. It’s an artificial construct meant to take us through what happened and, as we understand what happened, how that might have affected subsequent decisions like who to trust, what to wear, how to present themselves to the world. The event, though, was a blip. Four months out of the forty-seven years each has been alive (perhaps a few years longer for him). The characters—and the reader, by proxy—are finally allowed to feel a love not recognized as love at the time, being reminded that one of the lovers, considered by both to be “better” at the time, was not, in fact, better. More than that, we see how each has gotten stuck in their own way from long-ago event whose effects have long ago been written off.
The thing is, almost all of this happens in silence. Because when Cécile and Phillipe find themselves sitting next to each other, neither acknowledges the other. Cécile recognizes Phillipe immediately and vice versa. But they have convinced themselves the other couldn’t possibly know who they are.
Such are the head games we play—even with ourselves.
The question of whether to acknowledge the other may be the lynchpin which allows them, after twenty-seven years, to move on, unencumbered by who they once were and were to each other.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this one. The language—translated from French—is more direct than flowery. The emotion of both characters is easily tapped into. So much so, it’s a kind of YA book for an adult in the sense that the two main characters are reliving their younger days, feeling the angst, imagination, and passion from their younger selves as late Quadragenarians.
This was a surprising find from a recent library visit. I didn’t know what to expect but now that I’ve read The 6:41 to Paris, I highly recommend it.
What you may not like: This a quiet book, though it is also contemplative, emotive, and suspenseful. The action is either in memory or in the past because aside from the initial sit-down, there is little physical movement until the end. And while neither hopeless or grim, it is definitely not a romance.
What you will love: This is probably one of the best endings I’ve read, full stop. Much like Thelma and Louise or its inspiration Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the story stops with turning on a dime, the driving into an abyss, the walking into inescapable gunfire. And while this is a much less dramatic rendition of those two endings, what it shares is the invitation to speculate wildly about what may come next, knowing full well there is really only one thing truly probable.
Alex claims to read more than any normal, healthy adult should though the rest of the Binge on Books team would beg to differ. You can read all of his reviews here.
Connect with Alex on Twitter: @Alex_deMorra