The Christmas Train - David Baldacci
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This is one of those authors whose name I just keep seeing. I think that years ago some women in a Bible study I participated in told me that he was a good author, especially that their husband's enjoyed his books. I thought his books were even loosely Christian. Now I realize maybe I have him confused with Tom Perotta? When I heard the selection for this month I said, "Oh great, I've been wanting to read him for a while." Now that I actually look on my Want to Read list to clear up my confusion I see he is nowhere on my list. I'm not saying it was a bad book - it just didn't live up to my confused expectations. Now I realize the guy with the cool-sounding Italian name is probably just another mass-market paper back writer of which there are many (Judith Krantz, Jude Deveraux, Nora Roberts) churning out the sales their name brings. Obviously there is a place for them in this world. Not all reading can be serious. In fact, much reading NEEDS to be light and entertaining to provide escape from people's normal, heavy lives. Somehow though, (SEXIST ALERT) I feel like because he's a man, it should be better. I recently read Wedding Survivor by Julia London which was a completely indulgent, light and entertaining read. The difference being I had never heard of Julia London and therefore had no expectations and subsequently thought the book was fantastic and have now added some of her other titles to my Want to Read list. Compared to her, Baldacci is a pretty pathetic writer. I mean, if you're going to be cliche - make a commitment and be cliche. The train goes around a curve and throws the couple together, their lips meet... - that's how you do cliche. Not: they were about to kiss when behind his long lost love he saw his current girlfriend approaching - umm, if you are about to kiss your long lost love you're not going to notice anything beyond her (unless you are truly being cliche and, while kissing her, you reach up with one hand and wrestle the boa constrictor that was about to drop from the tree). Looking closer at Baldacci's other titles it looks like he is more of a thriller/action/adventure writer. Maybe this just isn't his genre. However, John Grisham's Playing for Pizza was not a legal-thriller (which is obviously Grisham's forte) yet still a well-written book.
I saw the paperback on a sale rack for $0.25 and quickly scooped it up. I had barely begun reading it when I realized I also had an eBook copy of the novel so I gave the paperback to a friend in book club and read the eBook therefore all page references below have an "e" after them to indicate it is electronic paging.
As expected, there is a happy ending. However, this one was slightly redemptive because there was quite a surprise twist about it which, for me, made up for a little of its wimpiness in other parts.
On a scale of 1 - 5:
Sex - a couple on their honeymoon is conspicuously absent but it is completely left to the imagination what they might be doing along with other veiled references that get a little more frequent and obvious in the last couple of chapters but if this were a movie I think it would be "G" rated.
Religion - there are a few religious references and talk of church services but it is all very light except when a young child questions the existence of god, the question is answered quickly and reasonably
Gruesome - nothing to report
Suspense - there is a lot of hints about a couple that wants to reunite so I assumed all along they would and was only minorly held in suspense about how it would happen
Morality - you could debate a couple of minor moral issues but it is really not a teachy/preachy book; there is nothing controversial here
The story proceeds at a decent pace - probably as fast as a passenger train in the U.S. It's faster than walking but not as fast as a bullet train. Chapters 2 and 3 throw a lot of statistics and fun facts about trains and Union Station at the reader. This same thing occurs several other times throughout the story - all of a sudden it turns into a semi-information-dump. It makes the story a bit choppy, but still maintains interest.
Baldacci also includes a lot of Mark Twain references in the book. Several times he mentions "The Innocents Abroad" by Mark Twain (which is now on my Want to Read list). Sometimes I think, if I didn't already have so many titles on my reading list, that it would be fun to make a "train" of sorts out of reading books. Like, I read The Christmas Train which mentioned The Innocents Abroad. So next I'll read The Innocents Abroad and if it references a book or author then I would read that next. He continues consistently with the Twain theme and an idea that Tom is taking the train due to a request from his late-father until the last several chapters when this thread ceases to be mentioned. The book is all wrapped up neatly except for not having any reference to the satisfaction of having completed his father's request or any closing remark about Twain.
I also found it lacking in the set-up of a central character, Eleanor. She is explained in the synopsis at the beginning of the book, but at that point I'm not committing names to memory. On page 9 it says the worst mistake of Tom's life was not marrying her. On page 53 it mentions Tom used to go to church with her. We've already heard about Tom's current girlfriend when, what felt like suddenly to me, on page 60 he is remembering almost proposing to Eleanor. When I read that I began trying to figure out who Eleanor was. I think the introduction was weak. Fifty pages later as Tom is trying to come to grips with the idea that the woman he has pined for all these years may well be over and done with him we read, "He'd held out some hope that she still loved him despite how it had ended. He'd kept that thought safely in his pocket all these years and it had carried him through some troubling times. Now that pocket was empty; actually, it had been ripped right off his pants." (p. 111e) I thought it was fun imagery but overall verbally simple with a surprising lack of sophistication for such a renowned writer.
The story began in Washington DC where Tom boards a train headed for Chicago. He'll transfer there and catch another train to Los Angeles. Lots of stuff happens on the train between DC and Pittsburgh (which really isn't that far geographically). Lots of characters are met, routines are established, train things are explained, and then all of a sudden they are in Chicago. Geographically Pittsburgh is about twice as far from Chicago as it is from DC so it seems like twice as much stuff should have happened in that leg of the journey.
These are details that I believe a good editor would smooth over but the more I read the more I began to wonder if there was an editor at all. (NOTE: In the Acknowledgments he thanks a guy for being "the new member of the team, for doing a very thoughtful editing job." So perhaps it is a new editor.) Roxanne was a train attendant who'd worked on the line for years. We also learned, "She leads the choir at one of the biggest Baptist churches in Chicago, and she's also a lay minister there." (p. 231e) It seems like just the church work would take a lot of her time and a regular schedule but on the train she is gone for days at a time so it is hard to understand how the two jobs can coexist.
In regards to a bachelor party the author writes "He told them the time for the party." (p. 253e) On the one hand I can see where this makes editing easier; less things to worry about plausibility. But up until this point we've been told so many timing details of schedules and such that it seemed odd that us, the reader, weren't privy to the time of the party.
I also enjoyed a little bit of humor when one passenger posed a difficult question to Tom and said he should take his time to think about it saying, "It's two days to LA." (p. 292e) In shock he stormed off and after informing the passenger he'd be in the bar they asked when he'd be back. "Two days." (p. 293e) was his response! Soon after that the book began to feel like "Nerd in Shining Armor" which was a book I picked up on whim and read years ago. Another mass-market paper back of cliches by an unknown author that also managed to outshine this book. It's calamity after calamity and (bad) cliche after (bad) cliche.
The further into the book I read the more the timing got fuzzy. Maybe these things don't bother other readers - but they bother me. In fact, for the book I'm writing, I have lots of references to time and one thing I will do before I release the book is to map out across all chapters who is where at what time and if it is plausible and cohesive. (I also expect my editor to look for these things.) So once the second leg of the journey began I calculated that they were going to be on the train for two nights. Then on page 332e Higgins says "The Chief runs this route twice a day, east and west." That seems implausible. Maybe on certain days it goes both west then east, but on many days it wouldn't. On Christmas Eve morning, when the train was scheduled to arrive in LA, the train is stranded between Colorado and New Mexico. It is noted that "diapers and milk started running low" (p. 360e). As a mom who traveled with children, it seemed odd to me that they would be running low already at that point. When traveling with kids one of the cardinal rules is prepare for the worst, pack extra and expect delays.
On the first train the attendant "was carrying a huge cluster of newspapers all balled up". What did you think the newspapers were from? When they appeared on the second train again what were your hypotheses?
Eleanor told Julie, "You're not marrying Steve's parents." (p. 144e) Many people say when you marry someone you marry their whole family. In your experience, which is more accurate?
Who did you suspect to be the thief? On page 367e we learn that "All the items that had been stolen on the Chief - and many of the items that had been taken during the trip on the Capitol Limited - had been returned to their rightful owners." Did that change any of your suspicions?
Discuss the plight of transportation in the United States. Compare with any knowledge you have of foreign travel infrastructure. Consider this passage from page 200e:
Did the airlines build the airports? Do they pay for air traffic control? Fact is, the airlines have been given tens of billions of dollars by Uncle Sam and they still barely make any money. The highways get over eighty cents out of every transportation dollar and the result is we keep building roads and we keep buying gas-guzzling cars to drive on those roads and we're one big traffic jam and dependent on foreign oil. With just a one-penny-per-gallon fuel-tax fund, Amtrak could build a world-class passenger-rail system, but the government won't give it to us. Ironically, this country was built by rail. Connected the east to the west and made America the center of the world."
Did you feel like the thefts were handled realistically? How did the delay of not filing a police report until the ride ended in Chicago affect the story? Did this delay tactic serve a worthy purpose in the architecture of the story?
Share your thoughts on this saying: "Where there's faith, there is no fear." (p. 297e)
On page 372e a young boy questions how there could be a god who would allow the train to get trapped. Discuss Roxanne's answer to the boy:
...it's often said that God works in mysterious ways. You have to really think about what He's trying to do. You can't be lazy and believe in God; He doesn't make it that easy. It takes spirit and faith and passion to really believe. Like most things worthwhile in life, you get back what you put into it. Only with faith, you get back a lot more."
On the first train we briefly meet Sue Bunt from Wisconsin. She is a "sales rep for a health-food company" who "slathered her roll in butter" (p. 112e). You could serve bundt cake, Wisconsin cheese and rolls with butter. In that scene the passengers are also served eggnog (I have personally used this recipe for years). The train attendant wears a Christmas hat and "the windows and tables were strung with holiday lights" (p. 112e). Later they drink screwdrivers and merlot. (p. 119e)
Play "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, the one with Jim Carrey" (p. 121e) in the background of your meeting.
Serve Doritos and play poker like on p. 148e.
Decorate with chess boards and pieces in reference to p. 155e.
Decorate a Christmas tree like the passengers did with odds and ends including "fake jewelry to bubblegum baseball cards hung with rubber bands to plastic action figures". (p. 363e)