Clare Pooley’s novel celebrates commuting with strangers
The first rule of commuting, as any veteran commuter will tell you, is don’t talk to other commuters. It’s a rule author Clare Pooley has observed over the years as a London commuter taking trains, buses and the London Underground.
“Before, you saw the same people. I never spoke to them, but I gave them nicknames and imagined what their life was like when they weren’t on the move,” says Pooley, who once saw a man in a suit impeccable open his black leather briefcase, vomit in and carry on as if nothing had happened.
“When the pandemic hit and we were all in our little boxes, I missed [the experience of commuting]. And I didn’t know I would miss it,” she says.
“And I thought, ‘What if I hadn’t been the typical British commuter and had the courage to make small talk?
That’s the premise of her delightful new novel, “Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting” (Pamela Dorman Books), in which a group of strangers see each other on the train every day. One day, as fifty-year-old magazine columnist Iona Iverson is on her way to work, the man next to her – she only knows him as the Smart-But-Sexist-Manspreader – begins to choke. with a grape. He is saved by a nurse named Sanjay, who delivers the Heimlich maneuver. The shocking incident sets off a chain of events that sees them all become an unlikely group of buddies, getting involved in each other’s lives in ways that extend beyond the ride. (There’s even a love connection.)
Protagonist Iona – who Pooley based on Jenny Joseph’s poem, “When I’m an old woman, I’ll wear purple” – is a particular delight, even as she struggles with heartbreaking issues at home and school. ageism in the office. “All my characters, I start from their fatal flaw. Hers is that she is getting older and has to deal with ageism,” says Pooley. “It comes from my own life. I was in advertising for 20 years. When I was 30, I was the youngest woman on the council. At the age of 39, when I quit advertising, I was the oldest woman in the office. It pissed me off. Iona was my antidote to that. A woman in her fifties who was at the peak of her powers and was going to go on and have a triumphant second act.