A Transcontinental Affair

Written by Jodi Daynard
Review by Ann Pedtke

A Transcontinental Affair takes a winning premise – the first coast-to-coast railroad journey in 1870 aboard the Pullman Hotel Express – and runs it off the rails with clunky prose, confusing plotting, and a cast of one-dimensional characters.

Hattie is a spunky, bloomers-wearing tomboy who chafes against the strictures of her society and her eminent congressman father. In a bid for change from her stolid Boston life, Hattie boards the train to join a fiancé she has never met in California. On board, she meets Louisa, a beautiful but clubfooted young woman with few marriage prospects who is serving as the unhappy governess to a wealthy family. Hattie is all bluntness and bluster, while Louisa is all kind-heartedness and reserve. They temper each other and soon begin to care deeply for one another – realizing as they ride toward their respective destinies that they may be looking for different futures than they had imagined.

While the luxurious details of the Pullman Hotel Express – from the menu, to the engine workings, to the lives of the waitstaff behind the scenes – are well-researched, Daynard’s prose is littered with confusing perspective shifts, redundancies, heavy-handed word dropping (“Reverend Finch prided himself on both his foresightedness and his celerity, though in truth he was neither very perceptive nor very swift”), and overblown descriptions (“anyone looking at her might have thought that Botticelli’s new-born Venus had come to life at a railway depot”). While Hattie and Louisa gradually grow into more rounded characters, the rest of the passengers – from the bratty Ridgewood children under Louisa’s care, to the bashful porters, to the corrupt railroad magnates – remain cardboard cutouts. By the time the story reaches its dramatic but muddled conclusion in San Francisco, the reader is as eager to depart the train as the disenchanted passengers.