Commuters by Emily Gray Tedrowe

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Change is at the heart of Emily Gray Tedrowe’s sparkling debut, Commuters, a tightly wound story of two families united by marriage in the sleepy bedroom community of Hartfield, New York. Late in the novel, seventy-eight-year-old newlywed Winifred Easton McClellan Trevis thinks, “Our marriage is like a station stop . . . An essential station stop, to be sure, and much loved . . . but not the final destination, or the train itself, or a rail route’s long stretch of miles.”

By Emily Gray Tedrowe
Harper Perennial

The narration is handled, in steady rotation, by Winnie and two other characters: her middle-aged daughter, Rachel, and her new stepson, Avery, a struggling entrepreneur and recovering addict. Tedrowe reserves her best, most electric prose for the chapters we see through Avery’s world-weary eyes. His sections feel muscular and alive, like Chihuly sculptures, fluorescent and curving and reaching down from the ceiling to grab us by our shirt collars. He thinks of himself as a “little lost rich kid caught in the crossfire of a battle between grown-ups,” and his attempts to find an authentic experience are the most compelling sections.

Commuters has received several much-deserved accolades since its release this past summer. Tedrowe’s talents are considerable. Her phrasing is precise; her prose is lucid and utterly devoid of hiccups or apologies. She also avoids the autobiographical navel-gazing that infects so many first novels. She is as comfortable writing about a punk-rock barbershop in SoHo as about the privileged and cloistered upper class. Reading her, one has the sense of meeting one’s smartest, hippest, most worldly friend for lunch in the priciest and trendiest downtown bistro, where, over rocket salad and a cocktail, one listens to that friend recount the juiciest and most hilarious details of all the recent local scandals, laughing devilishly at others’ foibles and enjoying being in on the joke.

It’s to her credit that Tedrowe assumes that her points of view are also her readers’—it’s clear there’s a relationship developing in the course of the book. Occasionally, however, this chumminess is distracting, as we’re asked to sympathize with predicaments that are only the purview of the über-rich. So while there are stakes in this story, and the stakes matter to the characters, generally only someone who wouldn’t blink at the price tag for an in-ground swimming pool could possibly consider the stakes high. These are not characters on the edge, not remotely, and they tend to regard anybody with true conviction—theater artists, “tree huggers”—with an insular skepticism backed by enormous wealth.

But Avery is our bellwether. Toward novel’s end, he gives directions to the New Haven line to a couple who has come into the city for dinner. Handing them a crumpled timetable he keeps in his wallet, he thinks about how Winnie often drops him off at the Hartfield station at rush hour, about “all those suits disembarking from the trains, with the same briefcases and the same tired smiles for whoever was dutifully waiting in the crowded parking lot.” All of it makes him want to shout, Wake up, people! There is so much more than this shuttling back and forth. He’s sure of it. There has to be.