Last summer when we were at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon I found myself going just a little crazy filling two baskets full of books that I had never heard of, by authors I had never heard of. Not everything I bought was new to me, but for some reason I did buy an awful lot that day that was a total risk. One of those books that I picked up was Victoria 4:30. Even before I saw the lovely cover drawing I suspected it might be referring to a train at Victoria Station in London. Given my predilection for train travel–especially of the vintage variety–I couldn’t help myself.
Even though I popped the book in my basket, I was thinking that I might be spending $5.95 on an unworthy book. Not only were both author and title unknown to me, but there was nothing else by the author on the shelf (suggesting he wasn’t very successful), and I’m always a little bit wary of old hardcovers that still have dust jackets in fairly good condition. It suggests to me that the book didn’t circulate much over the decades. So I was fairly convinced that I had made a purchase solely because I liked the nostalgic drawing of a train station on the cover.
I’m gong to hazard a guess that there are two moments of supreme bliss in a reader’s life that surpass all other pleasures of reading.
- Having the opportunity to curl up with the latest (or newest to you) novel of a favorite author.
- Taking a chance on a complete unknown and having it turn into something delightful.
Victoria 4:30 by Cecil Roberts
With all of this lead up (not to mention my raving about it on a recent episode of The Readers), it will come as no surprise when I say that I loved this book. There is no single plot, but for most of the book there is a single plot device. For the first 2/3rds or so, the reader is introduced to a cast of characters from very different walks of life and with very different motivations, all making their way to Victoria Station to catch the 4:30 boat train that will connect with the Arlberg-Orient Express. In total, we meet 13 main characters whose stories unfold just enough to let us know why they are getting on the train and where they are headed. Among them:
- A famous conductor on his way to Salzburg
- A young Slavonic prince who has to leave his English boarding school to assume the throne after his father’s assassination
- An English nun who refuses cancer treatment in order to live out her last days at her convent in Transylvania
- A grand, old, Russian General who has been reduced to being a tour guide to rich tourists in order to make ends meet
- A bachelor who is fed up with his ungrateful extended family who treat him like their own person bank book, who decides to go on an adventure and leave them all in the lurch
- A prolific author facing unprecedented writer’s block who is in search of a plot
Once we are introduced to all 13 characters we see how they cross paths and interact (or not) on the journey, and we get resolution for at least some of the stories as various passengers get off along the way and meet their fate. Although the book feels very genteel in manner, it doesn’t shy away from getting real and story lines have dimension and depth. Not every story gets resolved and some resolved in ways I didn’t like, but that is just me wanting 13 happy endings.
I just looked Roberts up on Wikipedia and note that he published about 40 books in his life. One called Grand Cruise, makes me think he might have repeated the Victoria 4:30 formula on a ship. To which I say: “Yes, please.” With so many books published, I think I have just discovered new quarry for my book browsing adventures. And on a side note, Roberts had a way of describing some of the male characters that makes me think he may have had some sugar in his water.
This would make a perfect Persephone offering. I might need to drop them a line.