There are ordinary moments from my youth that remain as clear to me as the moment they happened. Why, I’m not sure, other than they impacted me with some unresolved wonder, such as a few minutes I experienced on the subway during graduate school in Chicago. I was in my late 20’s, working and going to school. A fellow student boarded the train and took the seat beside me. I was infatuated with him, often staring at him during classes. There were many other seats available on the train, and I think taking the seat beside me was his attempt to get to know me. I remember the gray evening light, the cold in the poorly heated car, and also how frozen I felt emotionally, petrified in my shyness. I couldn’t say anything, not even hello, let alone look at him and smile. The train shuttled along. He also didn’t say a word. And then, he rose from his seat and got off the train. Why didn’t I say something?
In The 6:41 to Paris, a man sits beside a woman on a train. In this instance, there are no other seats available. This simple act ignites Jean-Philippe Blondel’s captivating, brief novel that builds tension with each character’s inability to acknowledge the other. They sit in silence, paralyzed by uncertainty and insecurity, as I was. When they were 20 years old, Cécile Douffaut and Philippe Leduc dated. Back then, 27 years ago, Cécile was plain, “nothing striking”, while Philippe was handsome, popular and cocky. They came together in a flirting fluke, and what kept them together was Cécile’s unpredictability and her refreshing nerve that intrigued Philippe. All along, he intended to dump her. Three or four months later, during a trip to London, Philippe’s arrogance demolished the affair with emotional cruelty.
Think of yourself in such a situation: Cécile and Philippe are now 47 years old. Each recognizes the other but doesn’t know if the other recognizes him/her. Philippe is now a balding, divorced TV and stereo salesman with a middle-aged paunch who knows he settled for less in life. Cécile is now an attractive, successful, married entrepreneur who pushed herself to rise above her humiliating youth yet still wrestles with feelings of inferiority. What would you say? For the non-stop ride, neither speaks ups. Philippe is ashamed about his self-centered actions those many years ago, and also depressed about his unsuccessful life. Cécile finds herself still enraged by what happened in London.
The story simmers with tension over who’s going to speak first, as the train travels for an hour and a half from Troyes, a town southeast of Paris, to the capital city. Blondel cleverly pieces together his characters’ individual life stories, with each thinking about their worthiness as spouses and parents, their statuses in their work and, most moving of all, their failure so long ago. Their inner voices in self-conversation capture relatable human concerns and emotions that draw on our compassion. We read to find out what happened in the past and if, in the present, Cécile and Philippe will finally say something to each other, as I wish I had done long ago in Chicago.