Washington Post editor Rowell locates his journalistic first novel at the intersection between private lives and national events, in this case Robert Kennedy’s death.
As the train carries Kennedy’s body from New York to D.C., Rowell cuts in and out among a cross section of Americans who live along the route, or in one case are visiting the area. The weakest stories are those about the black characters: a porter assigned to the Kennedy train his first day on the job and a concierge at a quality D.C. hotel who walks the generational line between dignity and servility. Both threads strive for complexity but bear too heavy a stamp of white liberal sympathy. Similarly, the story of an Irish born young woman up for a job as the Kennedys’ new nanny is a little too full of charm and blarney to feel realistic. On the other hand, fully believable is the disabled Vietnam vet being interviewed as a hero by a former high-school classmate (never a friend) for the local paper. As tensions and disappointments roil together along with miscommunications, the vet’s increasing isolation from his supportive but clueless family is gut-wrenching without being sentimental. So are the ill-fated adventures of a well-meaning middle-class woman sneaking off with her little girl to see the funeral train despite her husband’s rabid conservatism. Tension rises as she makes one poor choice after another until tragedy strikes, when readers are sucker-punched by her husband’s surprising emotional sensitivity. A more quietly painful plotline concerns a young boy recently “kidnapped” by his divorced father. Forcibly returned to his mother, whom he also loves, the boy plays out his emotional confusion while horsing around with his friends on the train tracks. In contrast, Rowell takes a detached, minimalist approach to depict pot-smoking, angst-ridden suburbanites celebrating their new swimming pool.
The Kennedy train is a weak link here between plot segments that are stylistically disjointed and lack any deeper thematic connection.