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“You gotta make your own place to belong”: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

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SYNOPSIS:

For cynical twenty-three-year-old August, moving to New York City is supposed to prove her right: that things like magic and cinematic love stories don’t exist, and the only smart way to go through life is alone. She can’t imagine how waiting tables at a 24-hour pancake diner and moving in with too many weird roommates could possibly change that. And there’s certainly no chance of her subway commute being anything more than a daily trudge through boredom and electrical failures.

But then, there’s this gorgeous girl on the train.

Jane. Dazzling, charming, mysterious, impossible Jane. Jane with her rough edges and swoopy hair and soft smile, showing up in a leather jacket to save August’s day when she needed it most. August’s subway crush becomes the best part of her day, but pretty soon, she discovers there’s one big problem: Jane doesn’t just look like an old school punk rocker. She’s literally displaced in time from the 1970s, and August is going to have to use everything she tried to leave in her own past to help her. Maybe it’s time to start believing in some things, after all.


McQuiston’s stories have a way of destroying my heart in all the best deepest ways. I still well up with unreasoning joy when I think about Red, White & Royal Blue, a book I still return to, from time to time, to scrape out some solace from the harsh, ugly world. And I’m happy to report that none of the author’s enchantment has ebbed away in this sophomore novel. If anything, One Last Stop only cemented for me that I will be reading every Casey McQuiston book for as long as they keep writing them.

One Last Stop is premised upon the romance of a magical public transit encounter: the ephemeral, lightning strike of recognition when two eyes meet and something unlocks with a soft and subtle click, something full of longing, excitement, and a kind of intoxicating fear, a sudden revealed landscape of possibility as immense as oceans. In this novel, McQuiston gives that short-lived moment of stillness within the roiling crowd a longer lease on life—with a time travel twist.

August, our protagonist, steps inside the Q train every day and spots the same girl with the “devastating cheekbones and jawline and golden-brown skin” who looks curiously out of pattern with the life around her, as though she were balancing right at the teetering edge of space and time and August’s gaze is the only thing keeping her there, rooted. Jane is strange and mysterious and utterly charming, and August feels charmed, and immediately worries at being charmed. Because it means August, who has a documented inability to leave well enough alone, has to give up her withdrawn existence and seek out the mysteries of Jane—before the awful hourglass in August’s mind runs empty and Jane vanishes from August’s life like a blown-out candle.

The first time August met Jane, she fell in love with her for a few minutes, and then stepped off the train. That’s the way it happens on the subway—you lock eyes with someone, you imagine a life from one stop to the next, and you go back to your day as if the person you loved in between doesn’t exist anywhere but on that train. As if they never could be anywhere else.

One Last Stop is both disarmingly charming and woundingly astute. In perfectly assured writing and deft, tender characterization, the author so clearly describes the shape of young adulthood, the compendia of fears and hopes that many of us are so intimately, intolerably acquainted with: about a future that yawns out to the horizon hungry and unknown, and a past that hangs over everything like an ineradicable ghost, the two pressing so hard on either side that there’s scarcely any room left for the present at all.

This is what One Last Stop captures, so acutely and with grief—that state of being in your twenties and feeling that the years have fallen right out of your pocket when you weren’t looking, that you’ve been merely drifting along, a feather caught on a draft, with no roots to sink into the ground, and awakening suddenly, dazed to realize that you are lonely in some horrifically deep way, that you’ve been living outside and away from yourself, with no possessions to spindle into memories, no place or person to call home.

This thematic exploration is so honest and true and sharp, and it lands so resonantly on the page because the author sees their characters—really sees them—,all the humiliating things in their hearts, the fears and longings that push and pull at them in a hundred painful ways, and makes us see ourselves in them with the wondrous reciprocity of a reflection in the mirror.


August, who’s existed on a diet of solitude and caution for years, told herself that love and close friendships were things that happened to other people and in faraway places, that some people were just meant to be lonely, were made to disappear. August held her secrets close and her pocketknife closer, and locked away all thoughts of being loved, being known, being wanted before they could turn into a real longing inside her head, something she could ask for and be denied. That is, until our lonely and wary protagonist is gently ambushed by a motley crew of strangers (consisting of an annoyingly perceptive psychic, a gentle nerd with arsonist tendencies, a former trust-fund baby, a drag queen, and a delightfully butch immortal) who offer her a gift as precious and simple as friendship.

The portrayal of found-family in this book is more comforting than a hug. On the page blooms the kind of love that is offered with both hands, freely and wholeheartedly, the kind you cannot acquire, only submit to, like the soft comfort of freefall—and I’m hard put to think of anyone who wouldn’t be shocked into pure longing reading about it. August’s friendship with this tangled, mismatched family of people rose like a spring tide, hurtling toward her in great waves of terrifying tenderness, and August—who has lived for so long on so little love—was utterly stunned to be caught in its blast. August did not remember any world where she did not distrust everything, where she wasn’t always hideously alive to the possibility of disaster; she didn’t know how to fit friendship into her life, how to adjust herself within this new, bewildering configuration. But through failed séances, drag shows, and late-night brunches, August’s hopes begin to snap through her fears, and her feeling of being nowhere slowly, exquisitely gives way to the feeling of being home.


And, of course, there’s Jane. Also known (mostly to August) as: “tall butch subway angel” Jane, “the guitarist of an all-girl punk rock band called Time to Give August an Aneurysm” Jane, “dark-haired and ruinous” Jane, “sexy poltergeist” Jane, “distressingly hot” Jane, “a smirking shot of dopamine” Jane, etc etc.

August and Jane are a gorgeous double act. They are opposites who fit so perfectly into the jagged contours of each other: August is quiet and cautious and pulled into herself, where Jane is bright and loud and lively, as if she contains too much energy for the confines of her body. August, whose upbringing was defined by a dark family tragedy, is versed in the art of keeping her head down and keeping everyone at a carefully measured distance, and Jane, on the other hand, is a carelessly sociable fighter, an activist, and a runaway, gliding through life like an exposed wire, ready and willing to touch whatever it touched.

Jane’s entrapment outside of time—and August’s desperate attempts to loosen whatever hold the Q train has on Jane—gives their collision a precarious, doomed edge, but it is the shape and texture of the relationship they slowly build between them that form the thread holding the beads of this novel together. And it is such a joy to discover.

Jane has a way of coaxing August further and further outside herself, cracking open the walls August has constructed around all the pain and anger she’s never felt brave enough to show plain, and August has a way of seeing past Jane’s irrevocable blitheness to the most endearing hints of vulnerability within her, all the dizzying details of Jane’s aloneness, her fears, and her yearning to be herself. Their moments together will make you feel light and giddy enough to float off the ground: the intense, longing gazes through train windows, the strictly-for-research stolen kisses, the laughter in between feeding each other overstuffed dumplings. This, perhaps more than anything, is the true pleasure of this novel: the way it captures the sheer joy of being swept up in the love of another, of reaching and being reached for, of belonging together, the keenness that hums between people who have passed a point of knowingness, who have dissolved each other’s walls, made gifts of trust to each other, and created a safe, easy intimacy.

There aren’t perfect moments in life, not really, not when shit has gotten as weird as it can get and you’re broke in a mean city and the things that hurt feel so big. But there’s the wind flying and the weight of months and a girl hanging out an emergency exit, train roaring all around, tunnel lights flashing, and it feels perfect. It feels insane and impossible and perfect. Jane reels her in by the side of her neck, right there between the subway cars, and kisses her like it’s the end of the world.

There is a line in this book that I cannot shake from my brain: “you gotta make your own place to belong.” One Last Stop is a harbor, and a compass, to those of us who have yet to make their place to belong—those of us who suffer the scarcity or absence of love, who are collecting more bruises of unbelonging every day. It is a shining paean to the extraordinarily healing power of love and community, to the inimitable joy of finding another like yourself, of grappling and strengthening and being together. You might turn the last page, dear reader, and feel a little raw, a little chafed, like a still-gaping wound, but you will also feel hopeful, determined, and ready to carve your own place to belong.


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3 thoughts on ““You gotta make your own place to belong”: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

  1. this was such a beautiful and eloquent review — all ur reviews are. but this review actually made me tear up a bit. i can’t wait to let one last stop into my heart

    Like

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