Commuters ride for love and understanding in Clare Pooley’s novel

Ah, the anonymity of traveling on the train, where “no one pays the slightest blind attention to anyone”. Spoken with complete confidence by Iona Iverson, the flamboyant heart, mind and soul of British author Clare Pooley’s second novel, these words point to a serious inability to read the play – or rather, a wagon.

Great attention is paid to daily round trips. It’s just unrecognized, a little sheepish and fueled by assumptions.

So what happens when the code of silence between commuters is broken – and facades are replaced with facts? “Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting” has many answers; it is a dynamic, brilliant, sometimes impetuous novel, both funny and poignant.

The story begins in the late 2010s with 57-year-old Iona – in high heels and a favorite tweed outfit – catching the 8.05am in London, loyal pug Lulu by her side. Novelty isn’t welcome in Iona’s ride: she’s timed her walking and waiting on the platform to the minute, and she’s heading to the same seat in the same compartment day after day.

Iona’s distaste for novelty extends beyond the tracks. Current trends in the workplace are confusing: she doesn’t want to participate in working from home; she prefers office interactions with younger colleagues at the magazine where she has worked for decades. His dismissive millennial boss encourages “hot desking,” which Iona says is just “corporate talk for sharing.” Most concerning: She’s about to receive “360 degree feedback,” a confusing HR exercise that looks overworked.

Once on the train, Iona settles into her seat and mentally takes note of her fellow passengers, many of whom are nicknamed. Opposite her is Smart-But-Sexist-Manspreader who wears exquisite costumes and tends to loudly bark into his cell phone. This morning, however, she is taken aback: the noise he emits is a noise of distress. Is the man choking?

The chapter ends on this climactic note, and the story picks up from a new perspective. Boarding the same train for London, Piers, an affluent financier, is in a bad mood because of the drama at home. His bad morning gets worse when he sees the only empty seat facing Crazy Dog Woman, who “looks even more ridiculous than usual” in a hilarious crimson tweed suit.

Yes, Piers references no one but Iona, and thus begins the absorbing, hilarious – and often revealing – perspective shifts that propel the novel.

As the train heads northeast, Piers checks his investments on his phone and, shocked by the results, accidentally inhales some of his breakfast. As he struggles to breathe, the red suit rises, a voice bellows for a doctor, and helping hands suddenly give him the Heimlich maneuver…

…introducing readers to Sanjay. The 30-something nurse, who is heading into town for her shift at the hospital, has been having fun with the redhead Girl On The Train for weeks. When a doctor’s call pierces his thoughts, he rushes to help, saving Piers and earning exuberant applause. What will happen now that Iona’s cardinal rule for commuting – “Never talk to strangers on the train” – has been violated?

Pooley adds several other key characters to the mix, including Emmie, the young woman who caught Sanjay’s eye; Martha, a precocious and socially isolated student; and David, a middle-aged lawyer stuck in marital funk. As the story unfolds between them all, it becomes clear that each struggles – to fit in, to succeed, to feel needed and loved – contrary to others’ perceptions.

At the center of the novel radiates Iona. A sleek and outspoken former “It Girl” of the London scene who lives with his wife, Bea, she delights in letting out ribald asides and thwarting a lot of convention. Yet even for her, fossilization threatens, and a challenge looms, testing her confidence: If Iona can’t add some “millennial sizzle” to her long-running advice column, she’ll lose her job. The fear of obsolescence invades several characters in the book. How Iona overcomes her depressing tug and rediscovers her courage is one of the novel’s many highlights.

Fueled by well-paced subplots (specifically, a cyberstalker targeting Emmie), “Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting” champions the community that can form when strangers take the plunge and start talking. Inevitably, doors open, perspectives broaden, and empathy blossoms.

Indeed, spinning readers through the thoughts, hopes, anxieties and vanities of its diverse cast, Pooley explores the complicated lives beneath the facades they present – and the need to replace judgment with a willingness to allow others to reveal themselves.

“Be more Iona” Sanjay presses at one point. At the heartfelt end of the novel, these are words to respect whether you move on or not.

Irene B. Bowles