Or, won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?
I’d heard quite a bit about Casey McQuiston’s new novel, including an interview with McQuiston herself, by the time a college friend cosplayed on Instagram as pragmatic heroine (or heroic pragmatist) August Landry. Her personal endorsement tipped the scales from Hopeful Read into Must Read. I was already singing the title to the tune of Ariana Grande’s “One Last Time.” Needless to say, it only got better from there.
We follow 23-year-old August in her move out from under her mother’s wing in New Orleans to Brooklyn, where she hopes for yet another fresh start in school and a life apart from the case her mother has spent their whole lives trying to crack: the disappearance of August’s uncle. As she adjusts to a demanding job at an old-school pancake house, a building full of wacky characters, and a rocky commute, her daily life—and relationship to all of the above—is derailed (pun intended) when she encounters Jane Su on the Q train. Jane is August’s tall butch leather-jacketed dream girl, and she crops up on August’s train…all the time. This is good news for August (or would be, if she weren’t terrified of love) but bad news for Jane. Turns out she’s stuck in time, having been displaced from the ‘70s by an electrical mishap (more of an event, really), and has no idea who she is or how to get back to where she once belonged.
Enter August and her years of dissecting hopeless mysteries. Over a span of months, she and Jane bond within the confines of the train Jane is physically unable to leave. August helps Jane piece together key components of her identity, her situation, and the various lives she has led in various cities. It isn’t only August’s problem-solving skills, but her own story, that clues Jane in—might it have something to do with someone in August’s life who vanished in the ‘70s??
Oh yeah, and they have sex. Tastefully written, dimension-straddling, very sexy sex.
McQuiston’s love of New York is a historian’s love: she superimposes her geographical biography onto August and approaches the city from a state of wonderment. The cause, it is determined, of Jane’s displacement was the blackout of summer ’77, which I had read enough Talking Heads lore to suspect. As Jane’s story filled out with dates and places, I eagerly awaited a mention of the blackout and attendant musical atmosphere; and the irony that her break with space-time occurs just shy of Talking Heads’ official debut frustrated my nerdy heart a little. But knowing Jane was a CBGB girl, and would have been tuned in to the cool places to be, gave me all the more reason to stick by her and made her all the more likely to win me over.
And she is winsome. Indeed she and August make a winsome pair—they have trouble expressing their feelings but find answers in each other to the questions in themselves. The dynamic between them is where McQuiston’s voice shines most, if one accepts the premise that it shines more in some areas than others. Because their relationship takes place wholly on the train, it would be easy for the narrative to become repetitive and subsequently boring; but both characters and readers are in the capable hands of an author who renders each encounter distinct and switches things up. A party thrown by August’s accountant/drag queen neighbor transfers onto the Q to include Jane; August totes a midnight picnic on board in her first conscious attempt to seduce Jane; they make a habit of crossing between cars via the adrenaline-rush-inducing emergency exits. I’m calling it now—a movie happens within five years.
One of my favorite things about the narrative is how bound up August’s ragtag group of roommates become in her story—how positively integral, in fact. So many romances relegate friends, living-space-partners, et al. to the sidelines once the love interest arrives. If, that is, those people don’t evaporate entirely. But the psychic Niko, cynical Wes, and funny, brilliant, multi-talented, uncontainable Myla only figure more prominently after Jane enters the picture. (Can you tell Myla is my favorite? The others are perfectly wonderful, but man, she’s something else.) They all have fleshed-out backstories and something to offer, as do August’s coworkers at Pancake Billy’s House of Pancakes and even, ultimately, her faraway mother. The many strands weave together satisfyingly, if a bit romantic-comedically (rom-commily?). But it is basically a modern-day rom-com, so what did you expect?
I do mean modern-day: it’s set in an alternate 2020, one not ravaged by plague and isolation. What a time to have potentially been alive.
Even so, the August/Jane romance is the gravitational center of the narrative. I won’t reveal whether the gang succeed in replacing Jane in time, but suffice it to say she leaves her permanent touch on all their lives. Per her limitation, she and August often communicate by requesting songs on the radio (McQuiston’s inclusion of “I Know There’s an Answer” from none other than The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds did NOT give me a minor meltdown why do you ask). She forges quick friendships with the queer community August falls into via her roommates, demonstrating the inter-generational kinship people can find along their self-discovery journey. August becomes more comfortable openly manifesting those parts of herself. And the more they learn about each other and themselves, the more fulfilling and well-rounded their attraction grows. It absorbed me: it was an intoxicating read.
McQuiston calls it an “Unbury Your Gays” story, subverting a tired trope, refreshing to say the least; but what impressed me above and beyond is how grounded and believable it manages to stay. It’s science fiction/magical realism, yet it rings truer than some stories supposedly set in our world as is. Representation-wise, it’s commendable—Niko is a Puerto Rican trans man in a relationship with Myla; Wes and Isaiah (the accountant, whose drag alter ego is named Annie Depressant) have been dancing around a mutual crush for years; and August is a bisexual cis girl who has her first female partner in Jane, a Chinese-American lesbian—and perhaps it’s because of the New York setting that it feels plausible. Certain reads come to mind whose array of identities feels either tokenized or so contrived that it seems to exist suspended in an ideal world where everyone is not only accepted but celebrated by everyone else exactly as they are. McQuiston’s characters know that the most radical acceptance and celebration start with themselves and each other, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she based the environment on what she has seen around her.
There’s so much more I want to say that I won’t. In sum, could not recommend more highly. Fans of romance novels especially, I think, will sense the step forward this novel symbolizes in the literary timeline. And despite one of the primary characters being a transplant from half a century ago, it’s packed with millennial humor. It will also remind you that every month is (or should be) Pride Month.
If nothing else, it might convince you to go out and befriend a psychic. They might be more legit than you give them credit for.
Dedicated to Ellie. You’re doing the Lord’s work.
Image: St. Martin’s Griffin edition, 2021