What makes life worthwhile? How do we go about creating a meaningful life, both for ourselves and for others? Many of the characters in The Blonde on the Train would have once answered by discussing the arrival of a “new world order” that would create social equality and harmony. Unfortunately, times have changed. Cynicism — or perhaps it’s simply practicality — has replaced the idealism of old. Now, a meaningful life must be found within society’s boundaries, not outside of them. The Blonde on the Train follows those struggling to redefine themselves in the face of a changing world.
The Blonde on the Train, the latest collection of short fiction from award-winning poet Eleanor Lerman, is an engaging group of stories that are both understated and haunting. The protagonist of each tale is the same (each features a middle-aged, lesbian hippie who must come to terms with society’s changing values and ideals), but every story nevertheless feels fresh and consistent in quality. I was surprised to find how connected I felt to these characters, despite my having nearly nothing in common with them.
In these stories, relationships — whether between lovers, friends, or family — are essential. Creative labor is also essential, it seems, for a happy existence, as working with one’s hands trumps the daily grind of office life. And yet, while the messages that run throughout these stories are quite similar, the means by which Lerman delivers them varies greatly. The result is a diverse — yet comfortably familiar — collection of tales as well as a memorable cast of characters. These characters do not despair over the loss of ideals that once kept them awake at night; instead, they have evolved with the times, finding humor and understanding in their new surroundings. All, however, struggle to create a meaningful existence during a time that seems to value meaning less and less.
The collection’s opening pieces are told from a first-person perspective, and these stories have an autobiographical feel, as though Lerman is sitting directly across from us, sharing a cup of coffee and recounting stories from her past. These stories also deal with the issue of fame, proving that fame and riches do not equal happiness. “Civilization” follows a young girl working in a factory, who has a brush with fame in the form of a reclusive novelist. “The Riddle of the Sphinx” concerns an older woman whose younger girlfriend becomes politically active, bringing the couple into contact with a judge whose ultimate dishonesty unsettles the narrator and evokes memories of her father. In “The Blonde on the Train,” a woman copes with a friend’s illness at the same time her job brings her into contact with a former quasi-icon.
The stories shift to the third person midway through the collection, and perhaps that’s why these stories feature a deeper sense of mystery than the ones that come before. Among these are “Woodstock, Again,” the first of these third-person tales. This story follows a woman who attended Woodstock as a teen but who reluctantly returns to the town as a middle-aged woman. Traveling to New York City — her spiritual home, it seems — allows her to experience the thrills denied her in the sleepy rural town. In the next tale, “Photographs,” a woman discovers that her neighbor has an uncanny talent for photography, and the natural and the supernatural collide in this surprising gem.
Ultimately, these characters know they have no answers, no formula for a well-lived life. As one narrator says, “For a long time, I returned to these questions again and again, because they seemed important then, but of course, they don’t matter much anymore. Which leads me to the conclusion that, given everything that’s happened in the intervening years, I have spent much of my life worrying about the wrong things, and probably still do.”
Questions and answers are not necessary, however, as these characters come to realize. Money, fame, work — these things do not define us, nor do they create a meaningful life; instead, love, laughter, friends — these things last, even after one’s youthful ideals have faded. In The Blonde on the Train, Lerman proves that, despite our differences, we all search for meaning and that undefinable “thing” that makes life worth living.
Readers interested in Eleanor Lerman and her work can visit here website.
Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.