For cynical twenty-three-year-old August, moving to New York City is supposed to prove her right: that things like magic and cinematic love stories don’t exist, and the only smart way to go through life is alone. She can’t imagine how waiting tables at a 24-hour pancake diner and moving in with too many weird roommates could possibly change that. And there’s certainly no chance of her subway commute being anything more than a daily trudge through boredom and electrical failures.
But then, there’s this gorgeous girl on the train.
Jane. Dazzling, charming, mysterious, impossible Jane. Jane with her rough edges and swoopy hair and soft smile, showing up in a leather jacket to save August’s day when she needed it most. August’s subway crush becomes the best part of her day, but pretty soon, she discovers there’s one big problem: Jane doesn’t just look like an old school punk rocker. She’s literally displaced in time from the 1970s, and August is going to have to use everything she tried to leave in her own past to help her. Maybe it’s time to start believing in some things, after all.
After loving Red, White and Royal Blue during lockdown last year, it was with quite some delight and anticipation that I looked forward to her new novel. For me, perhaps Red, White and Royal Blue came along at just the right time to fill my needs – it is after all a genre quite a way outside my usual fare! – and maybe I am just in a slightly different place right now. Would One Last Stop still be as satisfying and warm?
The answer is “in parts”.
The novel opens with August Landry – who never came across as quite as cold , hard or cynical as she claimed to be – being interviewed by Niko for her new apartment in New York to which she has fled because “she thought it would be every bit as cynical as her”. She brings with her only “five boxes. Five entire cardboard boxes to show for her life at twenty-three. Living like she’s on the run from the fucking FBI. Normal stuff.” A mere five boxes -which she considers reducing to four – to avoid the need to put down roots and connnections.
And connections are exactly what the novel offers August, firstly with Niko (a tattooed, transgender psychic) and Myla (a black artist and Niko’s girlfriend); then with Wes her third flatmate (a gay tattoo artist); then Jerry, Lucie and Winfield with whom August works after blagging a job at the quintessentially New York institution that is Pancake Billy’s House of Pancakes; then with Annie Depressant / Isaiah (gay drag queen cum accountant who is in love with Wes. As the community in which August embeds herself grows, so do her belongings.
August is in fact fleeing her mother’s obsessive quest to find her missing uncle, a quest which has filled most of August’s early years. And this was one of my frustrations with the novel: I’d have loved to have seen more of that search, the darkness of it and the obsession that led to August at
Age five, able to carry on a conversation independently, like explaining tearfully to the man at the front desk of a French Quarter apartment building how she’d gotten lost, so her mom could scavenge his files while he was distracted.
The search that also equipped August with the skills she needs through this novel, but which was kept at arms length.
The core of the story, though, is Jane (real name, Biyu Su) and August’s relationship with her: passionate and intense, albeit limited by the circumstances. Jane, you see, was born in 1953 and during 1977 she was somehow stuck unaging but out of time on the Q train line of the New York Subway Service, unable ever to exit it, generally amnesiac about her previous life and phasing in and out of existence arbitrarily on it. Some of the highlights in the novel were the chapter headings that recounted various strangers’ encounters with Jane over the years 1983 and 2019 and again I’d have loved to have had more of that incorporated into the narrative too! Women through time who fell in love with Jane either tenderly
You looked at me, and I looked at you. You smiled, and I smiled. Then the doors closed. I was so busy looking at you, I forgot to get on the train.
Do you like to be spoiled? This wealthy older businesswoman can provide you with a life of sensuality and luxury.
But Jane appears never to have fallen in love back as her feelings for August seem to affect their physics and metaphysics around them: Jane appears on the Q every time August boards it, and her passion can cause the train to black out.
The quest to initially discover what Jane is, then who she is, and finally how to free her involves the whole of that found family which August discovers – and who at times felt a little reminiscent of the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine gang! – and is a blast! It also did start to drag a little for me over a few mid-book chapters and I found there were perhaps two or three coincidences more than I was really willing to stretch my credulity for. Ironically, the more August (and McQuiston) tried to rationalise Jane’s situation, the less credible I found it – I do prefer my weird and speculative elements in a book to stay, well, weird! I think I said the same about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.
It was, however, incredibly sweet and warm and the relationship between Jane and August was wonderful. At her best, McQuiston can get a huge amount of meaning into straightforward language
Jane looks up and says, “Hey, Coffee Girl.”
“Hey, Subway Girl,” August says….
At the same time, some of her more extended descriptions of August’s feelings felt a little laboured and overwrought – maybe because August herself is so inexperienced in love. Nothing that brought me out of the book beyond a little eye-roll perhaps. I also found her description of the sex between them (which happens irregularly because of the semi-public nature of Jane’s situation) more candid and more confident – and therefore more satisfying to read – than those in Red, White and Royal Blue which was somehow a little coy.
The other powerful thing in the novel – and something that could have been developed further – was the generation gap between Jane and August and Jane’s experiences as a Chinese lesbian in San Francisco, New Orleans and New York in the 1970s, a world where expressing her identity publically would not have been as safe or as accepted as it is today. A much darker world that could have acted as a useful contrast to the present day world of the novel.
All in all, whilst I am in a better place personally than I was before, I did really enjoy this!
It was a great, warm read and I am looking forward to reading more.
What I Liked
- The representation – gender, race, sexuality, it felt that almost every combination was represented within the novel and presented warmly and positively.
- Consent – the opening words of the novel were (albeit in a non-sexual situation) “Can I touch you?” and Jane does explicitly obtain consent to kiss and touch before and during their encounters… and it did not detract from the sensuality or the passion of those scenes.
- Found family – quickly becoming a favourite trope in this genre!
- The chapter headings which comprised cuttings from reviews, letters and personal ads from people who had encountered Jane over the years
What Could Have been Different
- I’d have liked more of August’s mum’s quest to find her missing brother which could have raised the stakes and provided a powerful dark contrast to the warmth of the rest of the novel.
- Structurally, the novel was a little over long and over-reliant on coincidence to reach a resolution.
- An over-rationalised explanation of Jane’s situation – which I suppose was necessary to formulate a plan to rescue Jane – but felt a little redundant.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 432 pages
Date: 1st June 2021