Jonas Goldman lives with his younger sister Lily and his mom in their apartment in New York. His father left the family after being in hospital for a kidney stone and now lives with his girlfriend, Lorraine, at her apartment. One morning after missing his train to school, Jonas sits on a bench on the subway platform watching the trains. He has an old Canon AE 1 single-lens reflex camera that he found in his parent's apartment. Although Jonas has a cell phone, he prefers "real" photography to the digital type. As he sits, a train pulls into the station, covered in graffiti, the type that used to cover subway cars in New York years ago. Jonas manages to take a photo of the painted car with his Canon, but he also notices a girl sitting on the opposite side of the platform. She's very different because she looks like a hippie.
It is October, 1972 and Laura Duncan lives with her older, stoned brother Mitchell, her hippie mom and her mother's abusive boyfriend, Bruce, in an apartment`in Woodstock, New York. Laura's parents are divorced after her mother left three years ago and decided to be a part of the counter cultural hippie movement. Laura and Mitchell are on their way to New York to visit their dad, visits Laura enjoys because of the food and being able to watch television. When they miss their train, she and Mitchell sit waiting for the next train to Brooklyn. When the car stops, the doors on both sides of the train open and Laura can see across to the platform on the other side. There sitting on the bench is a boy with short hair, holding a camera.
Meanwhile when Jonas and his best friend Nick go to the Met to look for girls, Jonas sees an usual character there in a weird floppy hat. Later on the reader is introduced to this character, Max Lowenbein who is a graffiti artist. Max is studying art masters because he plans to paint a full end-to-end train with graffiti.
Almost two months later, unexpectedly one day Jonas sees Laura on the same subway train. Because her stop is coming up fast, Jonas only has time for a quick introduction, telling Laura his name and asking her to find him on facebook. Laura has no idea what he is talking about but she tells him she will be back in two weeks, a mysterious statement to Jonas.
Then Jonas sees the graffiti covered subway car two weeks later and jumps onto it only to find Laura on the car. She tells him she lives in upstate New York and that she's visiting her dad in New York City. Jonas notices that she acts rather odd about her parents divorce and she doesn't seem to understand when he mentions his cell phone. Before exiting the car, Laura gives Jonas her dad's home phone number and tells him to call her. When Jonas calls this number he is unable to contact Laura connecting instead with an elderly lady/
A month and a half later, Laura and Jonas meet again on the same train but when they agree to go for coffee they make an astonishing discovery. It begins when Laura steps off the train and Jonas is no longer behind her and for Jonas , she simply disappears. Jonas gets off the train and sits on a bench, puzzled but he begins to notice his surroundings - most of the people are dressed oddly. He also notices that the fellow sitting beside him is the Hispanic man from the Met who tells him his name is Max Lowenbein. Max tells Jonas he is a "writer" and then the train pulls into the station. On it is Laura whom Jonas saw get off the train only twenty minutes earlier and who is now dressed differently with a different hairstyle. Laura tells Jonas she waited for three hours in the station for her father and that both her parents were very worried about what happened to her, but Jonas tells her for him only twenty minutes have passed!
Jonas tells Laura that he believes maybe it is fate that they have met this way. He explains to her the Jewish belief of beshert, of finding one's soulmate, which is quite interesting to read. Neither of them knows what is going on but they decide that they will continue to meet. It is at this point that Jonas finally pass attention to the people on the train with them and he notices that no one has a cell phone or earphones. All of this leads Jonas to gradually begin to understand a little of what is happening to both him and Laura on the subway train.
Laura eventually meets Max, whom she knows as Spike, on one of her trips into the city on the graffiti train. Max knows that Jonas does not belong in the same time as Laura, although we never know how he knows this. Laura asks him to help her find Jonas, but he doesn't know how to do this. Instead Laura and Jonas just seem to meet up again as the two trains are pulling into the same station. During this trip Jonas asks Laura how much time has passed since they last saw each other. Jonas's suspicions about the graffiti covered subway car are confirmed when he asks Laura how much time has passed for her. She tells him it's been two weeks since she last saw him but for Jonas only one week has passed. He also learns that Laura is living in 1973 and that Nixon is still president. At this point Laura tells Jonas about her parents divorce and about Bruce physically abusing her.
Meanwhile Max wants Jonas to take pictures of his "piece" - his graffiti masterpiece on the subway car when it comes out of one of the tunnels so that it is preserved for posterity. Max's piece turns out to be five cars of a twelve car train with the quote, "Know how to live with the time that is given you." Jonas does this after spending time with Laura in a place that Max showed him. Together they witness the train but unknown to Jonas it will be the last time they see one another.
When Jonas is unable to find Laura again he begins to search for her. His friend Nick, worried about him suggests they try the library. There they look through the micro-fiche of newspapers and what Nick discovers shocks Jonas to his core. It is a decision that is made by Laura that allows them to live the lives they were meant to live.
Subway Love is an interesting idea but the way the novel is structured makes it difficult to follow the story and to grasp the message the author is trying to convey at the end of the novel. The meetings between Laura and Jonas are interrupted by sections that give the back story to their lives. This at times, makes the story difficult to read because of the way they are incorporated into the novel. It would have made more sense to place these sections in separate chapters instead of placing them within the narrative of Jonas and Laura's meetings. Overall, this created a somewhat stilted narrative that can be difficult to follow at times.
We never fully understand just how Laura and Jonas are able to meet one another except to know that they must meet on this one subway train covered in graffiti created by Max and that they are not able to be with one another outside the train. But maybe that doesn't matter. Instead, Baskin uses a third character, Max, whose five car burner has the message that ultimately affects the lives of Laura and Jonas. After seeing the burner with its unique art and message, Laura makes the decision to live in her own time and to do that she has to fake her own death so that Jonas, searching for her in his time, will learn of her death and like Laura, live the life he was meant to. The added bonus will be that her mother and Bruce will leave her alone when she moves to her father's home so she can live the life she wants. But Laura acknowledges that this is hard:
"It was like a piece of her very soul had been torn out of her body. The very thing that could make her whole, that had filled her heart and given her meaning, she had just thrown away. There was no worse feeling, because it was her choice."
Subway Love is a good short novel, but because of it's structure may lose readers on the way. A teaser book trailer can be found below:
Subway Love by Nora Raleigh Baskin
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press 2014