The Stationmaster's Daughter
Motherhood and frustrated love collide in The Stationmaster’s Daughter, the story of two different romances – one fraught and heavily one-sided, the other conducted as a form of emotional healing. Only one truly affected me, but the decency of the writing and the pull of the bittersweet prose kept me reading.
Still recovering from a nervous breakdown suffered when her marriage to her emotionally abusive husband Ian fell apart, Tilly Thomson has returned home to Dorset to lick her wounds and deal with her scars. After three miscarriages (to which Ian reacted with varying levels of sympathy), he impregnated a co-worker and demanded Tilly initiate a divorce. Back in her home town, Tilly stays with her alcoholic dad Ken while she tries to figure out how to move on with her life, and soon finds herself caught up in Ken’s plan to restore the town’s historical railway station to its former glory.
When she finds a diary hidden away in the station’s ticket office, Tilly is soon enchanted by the life story of a long-dead stationmaster who once ran Lynford Station like a Swiss watch. As she tries to clear his name of an ancient crime, she discovers she’s pregnant from an impulsive and drunken one-night stand with the decent if bland Rob.
Decades earlier, middle-aged stationmaster Ted Morgan had rejected the idea of romance in favor of his magnificent obsession with making the trains run on time. But one day he shares a compartment with Annie Galbraith, and everything gets turned upside down. Dreaming of a future with Annie, Ted tries to court her as she pops in and out of his station on her way back and forth from her job, only to find that she’s fiercely independent and free with her affections. Annie at first comes off like a Daisy Buchannan type; she treats Ted like an amusing toy; she can’t remember his name, uses him for free labor and entertainment, and keeps things exceedingly casual between them while dating fast gentlemen with even faster cars. When Ted thinks he’s starting to make headway with her, he gets word that the line’s shutting down – and that Annie has entered into an engagement to a man she dislikes for the benefit of her father’s business. A one-night stand leads Annie and Ted into parenthood – but another awful night leads to a scandal that may separate them for good.
The Stationmaster’s Daughter works in halves. Perhaps the biggest problem with the book’s split timeline is that one side of the story is much more interesting than the other. While it’s easy to pity Tilly, the plotting of her part of the tale was so ludicrous I couldn’t buy it. I had a terribly hard time accepting that this woman – fresh out of a mental hospital after a suicide attempt – was ready to embark on an unplanned pregnancy (after a devastating divorce, no less) with nearly no psychiatric or medical help. She does visit doctors for ultrasounds, but a woman who’s had three miscarriages in a row would require so much more supervision and care during a fourth pregnancy. (Here, I’ll warn readers who have experienced miscarriage or don’t want to read about them, Tilly’s are examined with a blunt frankness on-page.) She’s such a wet blanket of a woman, and I felt no urgency for parenthood in her; she seems to care more about righting a wrong than for the fetus she’s nurturing, thus I had no idea why the author made this plot choice for her. And there’s such an odd feeling of nonchalance about her situation that it seems as though she’s carrying on with this latest pregnancy to prove she’s can carry a child to term, that motherhood is something she needs to accomplish as a ‘fuck you’ to the universe versus a drive to parent. And don’t be fooled by the back cover copy; Rob exists to get Tilly pregnant, and then vow to come by and babysit occasionally. He’s a good friend and a nice sperm donor, but nothing more – I didn’t believe in their relationship one whit – unlike Tilly’s friendship with Jo and her relationship with her dad.
Meanwhile, the Pinks-like Ted and his obsession with Annie are perfectly rendered. Eventually I came to resent the framing device of the Tilly chapters wholesale – worse, the diary part of the plot is rarely used, with Tilly five steps behind the reader and the action mainly relayed in the third person instead of the first.
The Runyonesque story of Annie and Ted, however, is worth the price of the book. Ted is enormously sympathetic, and Annie is at first as shallow as any Fitzgerald heroine ever was; you root for Ted while resenting Annie’s obvious need for a man with money and the latest fancy, shiny accoutrements until we finally get PoV chapters from her and are able to see inside of her mind. While I never bought that she loved Ted as much as he loved her, their story is a compelling one. You can likely see the secret twist coming long before it’s revealed, but if you’re like me, you probably won’t mind waiting for it.
The Stationmaster’s Daughter is worth reading for Ted’s story, but sadly Tilly doesn’t hold up her half of the novel at all and the result is an uneven and fairly mediocre product.