Façades are dropped and judgments suspended on a commuter train

On the 8:05 to London, commuters ignore each other. Until an incident brings them together in Clare Pooley’s “Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting.”

"Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting," by Clare Pooley, Viking, 352 pp.

Ah, the anonymity of commuting on the train, where “no one pays anyone else the blindest bit of attention.” Voiced with utter confidence by Iona Iverson, the flamboyant heart, wit, and soul of British author Clare Pooley’s second novel, these words indicate a serious inability to read the room – or, rather, a rail car.

Attention is very much being paid on the daily trips to and fro. It’s simply unacknowledged, a bit sheepish, and fueled by assumptions. 

What happens, then, when the code of silence between commuters gets cracked – and façades are replaced with facts? “Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting” presents answers aplenty; it’s a buoyant, bright, occasionally brash novel that’s equal parts funny and poignant. 

The story begins in the late 2010s with 57-year-old Iona – in high heels and favorite tweed get-up – catching the 8:05 into London, faithful pug Lulu by her side. Novelty is not welcome in Iona’s commute: She’s timed her walk and platform wait down to the minute, and she heads to the same seat in the same compartment day in and day out.

Iona’s distaste for novelty extends beyond the tracks. Current workplace trends baffle: She wants no part of working from home; she prefers the office interactions with younger colleagues at the magazine where she’s been employed for decades. Her dismissive millennial boss encourages “hot desking,” which, in Iona’s view, is just “corporate speak for sharing.” Most worrisome: She’s about to receive some “360-degree feedback” a perplexing HR exercise that feels overwrought.

Once on the train, Iona settles into her seat and takes mental note of her fellow riders, many of whom she’s nicknamed. Across from her sits Smart-But-Sexist-Manspreader who wears exquisite suits and tends to bark loudly into his mobile phone. This morning, however, she’s brought up short: The noise he’s emitting is one of distress. Is the man choking to death?  

The chapter ends on this climactic note, and the story resumes from a new point of view. Stepping aboard the same train into London, Piers, a well-to-do financier, is in a sour mood thanks to drama at home. His bad morning gets worse when he sees that the only empty seat faces Crazy Dog Woman, who’s “looking even more ridiculous than usual” in a hilarious crimson tweed suit.

Yes, Piers is referring to none other than Iona, and thus begins the absorbing, amusing – and often revelatory – perspective shifts that propel the novel. 

As the train lurches northeast, Piers checks his investments on his phone and, shocked by the results, accidentally inhales part of his breakfast. As he struggles to breathe, the Red Suit rises, a voice bellows for a doctor, and helping hands are suddenly giving him the Heimlich maneuver ... 

... introducing readers to Sanjay. The 30-something nurse, headed into the city for his shift at the hospital, has been mooning over the redheaded Girl On The Train for weeks. When the call for a doctor 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’s caught Sanjay’s eye; Martha, a precocious and socially isolated student; and David, a middle-aged lawyer stuck in a marital funk. As the story carousels between them all, it becomes clear that each is struggling – to fit in, to succeed, to feel needed and loved – contrary to others’ perceptions.

At the novel’s center beams Iona. A stylish, outspoken, former London-scene “It Girl” who lives with her wife, Bea, she delights in blurting out ribald asides and bucking many a 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 creeps up on several characters in the book. How Iona overcomes its depressing tug and rediscovers her courage is one of the novel’s many highlights.

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

Indeed, by rotating readers through the thoughts, hopes, anxieties, and vanities of her diverse cast, Pooley explores the complicated lives under the façades they present – and the need to replace judgment with a willingness to allow others to reveal themselves. 

“Be more Iona” Sanjay urges himself at one point. By the novel’s heartfelt end, they’re words to live by – whether you commute or not.

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