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Review: Railway Confessions by Carolyn Moncel

Much of this collection, a trio of short stories and extra material to boot, features characters with previous appearances in the short fiction of Carolyn Moncel. Following the three stories there is an Epilogue, a Mini-Interview of the author, some handy Book Club questions, an excerpt from Carolyn’s forthcoming novel Geneva Nights, and blurbs for Carolyn’s two previous publications Encounters in Paris and 5 Ways to Leave a Lover.

The setting for the three stories in Railway Confessions is a train ride from Paris to Geneva, during which three pairs of strangers share intimate details of their lives with one another, something they wouldn’t have done ordinarily.

The first story, “My Brother’s Keeper,” begins in a train station in Paris. It’s August, which means the entire city is heading for the countryside. This creates a full train and two good friends traveling together to Geneva now find they have to sit in separate cars. Lola Sanchez, a policewoman, and Ellery Roulet, an American ex-pat with a white collar career, are both in their late thirties. They come from working-class backgrounds and share an ambition to succeed; both are considered outsiders of a sort.

Once this backstory is set up, we find Lola sitting in a car next to a gorgeous older man, also an ex-pat (like Ellery). At first Lola is quite perturbed with this gentleman yet she soon finds herself trading personal confessions with him: “It’s the secrets that you keep that fuels the unshakable guilt.” Social class comes up for Lola quite a bit but the main conversation concerns the taking of human life. They conclude their conversation amicably with a bit of flirting and Lola teasing him by saying “you should meet my friend” (meaning Ellery).

The second story, “A Choice in the Matter,” begins as the train leaves Lyon for Bellegarde. This time we find two ex-pat American females sitting together: Emilie Scott, a young mother/gothic Lesbian with a baby girl, and Mira Delacourt, 45 years old, married for 20 years to a museum curator, with three teenage sons and no career (yet). These characteristics and the title of this story hint at the topics Emilie and Mira become engaged in while riding together.

As the train makes its way from Bellegarde to the final destination of Geneva, we are now riding along with Ellery, who, like Lola, finds herself sitting with a distinguished-looking older gentleman, Laurent Petit. Laurent witnesses Ellery having an erotic dream about her husband (whom she is very mad at). After some initial irritations on Ellery’s part, this pair of passengers also indulges in mutual confessional sharing. We learn that Laurent has had two marriages, lots of mistresses, and numerous affairs, and makes no apologies for any of it. Ellery confides to Laurent that she recently miscarried but told her husband Julien she’d had an abortion (continuing the thread of life-and-death choices running through all three stories). “Pretty Prison” is how Laurent describes Geneva to Ellery, who is considering a move there. Laurent also mentions a long-lost daughter he’s never seen whose first name is Lola.

In the Epilogue, Lola and Ellery reunite at the train station in Geneva just past midnight. I saved the Mini-Interview and Book Club questions for later and skipped to the excerpt from Geneva Nights because I was so involved in Moncel’s storytelling that I wanted more. In this clip from the forthcoming novel, Ellery, whose divorce is growing closer, goes apartment shopping in Geneva and runs into none other than the gorgeous stranger from “My Brother’s Keeper,” Kai McAllister, a photographer whose work she has seen.

I then read the blurbs for Encounters in Paris (featuring Ellery and her husband Julien) and 5 Ways to Leave a Lover (part of which continues the story of Ellery and Julien). I found both of these online as free downloads and greatly enjoyed further exploration of these and other characters. In all of her short stories, Moncel creates intrigue and weaves her plot elements to yield both psychological and emotional story arcs.

Although this level of sophistication in the writing was a pleasant discovery for me, the inexplicable presence of typos and grammatical errors in Railway Confessions forces me to give this collection a rating of 4 stars rather than 5. However, after reading these short stories, I’m convinced in advance that Moncel will be an excellent novelist and will be watching for the release of Geneva Nights.

About the Author

Carolyn Davenport-Moncel is also the author of Encounters in Paris – A Collection of Short Stories and 5 Reasons to Leave a Lover – A Novella and Other Short Stories. Originally from Chicago, she lives in Lausanne, Switzerland with her husband and two daughters. Two new works are slated for 2012:  Geneva Nights – A Novel, and Nearly Lost You, a Young Adult novel co-authored with her teenage daughter under the pen name Ella Swinton.