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Last Train to Babylon


Last Train to Babylon

Charlee Fam’s debut, LAST TRAIN TO BABYLON, is the intense story of a young woman’s acceptance of and road to recovery following a devastating trauma.

Twenty-something Manhattan resident Aubrey Glass is a self-described cold-hearted girl. Although she has a job as a reporter and a serious live-in boyfriend, she just cannot seem to connect to anything or anyone. A bit self-centered and aloof, she even has a collection of five perfectly prepared suicide notes and three breakup notes. Though she’s clearly struggling with something, as evidenced by her Xanax habit, her life is peaceful, with few to no interruptions --- until she gets a phone call from her mother telling her that her best friend from high school, Rachel, has committed suicide. And Aubrey has a secret: just before she died, Rachel left her a voicemail that she has yet to listen to.

I can’t say Aubrey is likable from the start, as her immediate reaction to Rachel’s death is not shock, sadness or even empathy, but “I can’t believe she beat me to it.” It is important to note that Aubrey is not exactly jealous, just mildly offended. Her mother, Karen, is a high school therapist and guilt-trips Aubrey into returning home for Rachel’s funeral, acting like Aubrey is some sort of monster for barely considering it. It is clear that something terrible happened between Rachel and Aubrey, but the reader gets no clues about what could have ended their lifelong friendship.

"I cannot say I liked Aubrey, but I thoroughly enjoyed her journey and found it very believable.... Fam’s rendering of an abusive, codependent friendship was also spot-on, and I feel many girls will relate to the intensity of Aubrey’s bond with Rachel."

As Aubrey takes the train home to Long Island, Fam does the remarkable, fearless job of letting readers into her twisted head. Unlikable though she may be, her thought processes, self-deprecations and even criticisms are exposed for exactly what they are, no holding back. As she recalls her friendship with Rachel, neither girl comes off particularly well: Rachel is controlling, manipulative and, frankly, not the sort of person one can fault Aubrey for avoiding. Still, not all of her memories of Rachel are bad, and it is clear that they had a strong bond, at least through high school. Rachel was the leader of their little group, and, though she could be demanding, she was careful to remember the little things and remind her friends of her love for them. During Aubrey’s flashbacks and recollections, the names of two boys, Eric and Adam, stand out, heightening the suspense and air of mystery.

When Aubrey finally makes it home, we meet her mother and two brothers, Marc and Eli. Although we have been told that Karen is a therapist, her inability to drop the subject of Rachel, even when she sees it upsetting Aubrey, is disturbing. Aubrey takes every chance she can to down a glass of wine or bottle of Jack, which is only exacerbated by her mother’s frequent questioning. Even worse, Aubrey keeps running into old high school classmates, all of whom are quick to bring up how close Aubrey and Rachel were. Aubrey plays along for a while, but her shaking hands, Xanax-popping and steady drinking expose her hidden vulnerabilities. At this point, the chapters begin to alternate between past and present, offering brief vignettes into Aubrey’s high school life, from her friendship with Rachel to her relationship with Adam, her first boyfriend.

Aubrey’s interactions with Adam are strange from the start: Adam’s older brother, Max, was Aubrey’s first kiss, but accusations of rape from another girl led him to kill himself only a short time later. Aubrey meets Adam at Max’s funeral, and the two begin a quiet, awkward friendship, which becomes a cute high school relationship. Though the two date for four years, Aubrey can never quite bring herself to have sex with him. Frustrated and intimidated by Aubrey’s college acceptance to Brown, Adam erupts, and it seems as though the two will break up. Encouraged by Rachel, Aubrey decides she must lose her virginity to Adam now or lose him forever.

In the present day, Aubrey is not handling Rachel’s funeral well at all. She has two very public outbursts, both of which are fueled by cocktails of alcohol and Xanax. She screams at anyone who will listen that Rachel was a bitch and no one should miss her, but nobody seems to understand where it all started. Throughout it all, Aubrey refuses to let herself listen to the voicemail. Finally, it is the night of the funeral and after-party, and Aubrey has her worst breakdown yet. The tragic event she has been suppressing for years has finally surfaced, and, in her mind, Rachel was the cause. Terrified, drunk and manic, Aubrey storms into the after-party and unleashes hell on the attendees, screaming, falling and spewing hate at Rachel’s memory.

Aubrey wakes up in the hospital, uncertain as to how she ended up there. She soon remembers telling her mother the reason her friendship with Rachel ended and finally faces the facts, however painful they may be. Her recovery is heartbreaking, brutal and shockingly realistic. She fights back, relapses, and tries to distance herself from help as much as possible, but, in the end, she knows she must recover. Too often, books that focus on a character’s trauma end happily and neatly, which is far from the case in reality. Fam avoids this trope and creates a book that is suspenseful, engaging and hopeful without seeming watered down.

In the end, I cannot say I liked Aubrey, but I thoroughly enjoyed her journey and found it very believable. When she finally began to accept her trauma and put effort into healing, I breathed a sigh of relief. I also enjoyed Fam’s nods to current twenty-somethings: Aubrey uses SnapChat, wears leggings and way too much black, just like any young woman in Manhattan. Fam’s rendering of an abusive, codependent friendship was also spot-on, and I feel many girls will relate to the intensity of Aubrey’s bond with Rachel.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 31, 2014

Last Train to Babylon
by Charlee Fam

  • Publication Date: October 28, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062328077
  • ISBN-13: 9780062328076