Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Christmas Train – David Baldacci

© 2002 Warner Books, New York

Years ago I enjoyed an audio of one of David Baldacci’s books, and have been wanting to read the bestselling author in print. I’ve been looking forward to The Christmas Train since it came out in 2002. Finally, I had an opportunity to snag a copy at a book fair last spring.

Baldacci’s effort at a Christmas story leaves a little to be desired. Tom Langdon, erstwhile battlefield reporter and current “lifestyles” freelancer, has decided to take the train cross-country at Christmas. Ostensibly it is to gather research for a story about the train trip reminiscent of Mark Twain’s travel guides. Twain had apparently been close enough to Langdon in ancestry to mention, and had made such a transcontinental trip without having finished the documentation of it. Armed with orders not to fly within the continental US, a desire to complete this work (as a promise to his father), and arrangements to meet his girlfriend from the other coast in LA for a ski holiday over Christmas, Tom books passage on the Capitol Limited (service from Washington, D.C. to Chicago) with continuing service on the Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles). On the ride he encounters a variety of characters—some Amtrak workers, others fellow passengers, who color the trip in as many different ways as there are characters. He is thrown back into the path of his long lost love and former writing partner, Eleanor. The experience on the train brings him in contact with a couple running off to marry on the train, a retired priest, a laid-off train expert, and an expert thief.

The biggest problem with The Christmas Train is that it can’t decide what kind of story it wants to be. Is it a love story? Is it a mystery? Is it a disaster story? Is it a Christmas, feel-good story? And in the end it doesn’t do justice to any of these. The romance with all its tension is resolved just as we expect it to be. The thief is caught, but isn’t really the focus of the story. The avalanche, while it could be scary and is written as life-threatening, doesn’t pass muster for the disaster. And the resolution of the Christmas theme doesn’t tug at your heartstrings the way it should. To top it all off, the Mark Twain connection is tossed in so often as to be overbearing on the story.

My advice, read The Christmas Train if you’ve nothing else pressing, but if you want a good Christmas story look to Dickens. I can only give up two out of five reading glasses for The Christmas Train.

—Benjamin Potter, January 16, 2008

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