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Clare Pooley novel celebrates commuting with strangers

The first rule of commuting, as any veteran commuter will tell you, is you don’t talk to the other commuters. It’s a rule that author Clare Pooley observed over years as a London commuter taking trains, buses and the London underground. 

“You used to see the same people. I never talked to them, but I gave them nicknames and imagined what their lives were like when they weren’t on their commute,” says Pooley, who once saw a man dressed in a crisp business suit open his black leather briefcase, vomit into it, 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 might have happened if I hadn’t been the typical British commuter and had the courage to make conversation?’”

Author Clare Pooley
Author Clare Pooley

That’s the premise of her delightful new novel, “Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting” (Pamela Dorman Books), wherein a group of strangers see each other every day on the train. One day, when fiftysomething magazine columnist Iona Iverson is en route to work, the man next to her — she knows him only as Smart-But-Sexist-Manspreader — begins choking on 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 results in them all becoming an unlikely band of buddies, getting involved in each other’s lives in ways that extend past the commute. (There’s even a love connection.) 

Iona Iverson's Rules for Commuting

Protagonist Iona — whom Pooley based on the Jenny Joseph poem, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple” — is a particular delight, even as she grapples with heartbreaking trouble at home and ageism at the office. “All of my characters, I start from their fatal flaw. Hers is that she is aging and having to deal with ageism,” says Pooley. “That came from my own life. I was in advertising for 20 years. When I was 30, I was the youngest woman on the board. By the time I was 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 late 50s who was at the height of her powers and was going to go on and have a triumphant second act.”

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