With an appealing new love story set on the Q train, the bestselling author of Red, White & Royal Blue is poised for a swift return to the bestseller list.
If you’re looking for an affordable and romantic date, Casey McQuiston thinks the New York City subway is the perfect setting. “The Q is the most romantic line,” she says. “From Midtown to Coney Island is a picturesque ride.”
From the gleaming skyline to the architecture of the Brooklyn Bridge and the calm waters below, the Q offers several romantic views for riders to enjoy. From there, McQuiston imagines her date’s next steps: “Hop off at Prospect Park to do a little pedal boat ride. Hop back on and take it all the way out to Coney Island, where you ride the Wonder Wheel and put your feet in the ocean. Get a hot dog from Nathan’s and then get back on the train.” Where are you going to eat that hot dog? On the train, of course, because as McQuiston notes, you’ll have a lot of downtime waiting for the Coney Island train to leave the station. Plenty of time to gently wipe a smudge of ketchup from the corner of your partner’s mouth with a napkin, if you’re so inclined.
McQuiston’s love for NYC (where she now lives, though she grew up in Louisiana), and specifically its subway system, is clear on every page of her sophomore novel, One Last Stop, which she describes as “a public transit crush romance with a time slip twist.”
Its protagonist is August, a “lost and confused 23-year-old who moves to New York [City] because she’s lonely and cynical and she wants to live in a lonely and cynical city, as she sees it,” McQuiston explains. “She gets there and discovers friends and family and love in all of these weird, broke, early-20s, New York types of ways.” Despite her cynicism, August quickly finds her people, including a trio of quirky, smart roommates. She also finds a potential romantic connection in Jane, an alluring young woman she meets on the subway.
After Jane gives August her scarf to hide a particularly ghastly coffee stain, August can’t stop thinking about her, even though she knows the odds of seeing her again are incredibly slim. But Jane’s reality turns out to be much more complicated than August realizes: She’s been, somehow, displaced from the 1970s into the present day and is now stuck on the Q train, with no memory of how she got there. Because Jane is unable to leave the subway, the romance between her and August is a little challenging. But throughout their burgeoning relationship, McQuiston makes certain that no bare body part touches a subway seat, a detail that, if it had been overlooked, surely would have made any New Yorker cringe.
The time slip element of One Last Stop has been present since McQuiston first began working on the novel. “The first flicker of an idea came to me when I was on a trip to New York and had ridden the subway a bunch,” McQuiston says. “There’s something super romantic when you’re on the subway and another train passes you, and you can briefly see into the windows of the other train. It feels like such a liminal space, and it’s inherently magical to me.”
As she tried to decide what time period Jane should be from, McQuiston realized she wanted to create a character who had a connection to the subway before getting stuck on it, which meant that eras before its invention were definitely out. The author also notes that since there’s already so much going on in the story, “we don’t have time to also explain to Jane what being gay is,” so she also wanted Jane to be fully out and as queer as she could be during her time period. A historical event triggered Jane’s time slip, and though McQuiston doesn’t want to spoil it, she says that once she landed on that moment, it became easier to write Jane and her ’70s punk aesthetic.
“The ’70s were such a rich time for social movements, and I love the idea of this girl who is this punk rocker who also was deeply involved in different activist movements, like the antiwar movement, the Asian American movements, post-Stonewall uprisings around the country,” McQuiston says. “All of these things fell into place to tell me that the ’70s were the sweet spot for this character.”
Although August isn’t a time traveler, she’s also a bit of a mystery to the reader and to herself—just as she was to McQuiston at the beginning of the writing process, as she struggled to create a character who is a bit prickly and wary of others, while still pushing them to advance the plot and making them compelling and lovable on top of it all. “August was hard to nail down,” McQuiston says. “The first draft, I really struggled because I tried writing in first person, which I hadn’t done in a really long time. During revisions, I realized that on a meta level, I wasn’t really clicking with her because I was too close to it. I couldn’t see her from the outside and figure out how she fits into her own life. I went through and changed the entire draft to third person, which was fun for me,” she says, laughing.
“For a lot of queer people, coming out is not the end of a story, it’s the beginning.”
With its time slip mystery and more contemplative, thoughtful tone, One Last Stop is a markedly different read from McQuiston’s debut. Compared to Alex Claremont-Diaz, first son of the United States and the main character in McQuiston’s bestselling 2019 novel, Red, White & Royal Blue, August is a shift in the opposite direction. Whereas Alex was “extroverted and extra,” August is more internal and reserved.
August also carries some baggage due to her unconventional upbringing, which McQuiston says was partly inspired by the mother-daughter duo of Lorelai and Rory in “Gilmore Girls.” Although August and her mother embody the “us against the world” vibe of Rory and Lorelai, McQuiston also wanted to explore the darker side of how that type of codependent relationship can affect a person in adulthood.
August’s mother, who’s a bit of a conspiracy theorist and hoarder, has been obsessed with the disappearance of her brother, August’s uncle, since August’s childhood. “August’s mom is just complicated, and that’s how a lot of our parents are. Early adulthood is about figuring out who you have grown into and then being like, ‘Oh no, it’s my mom!’ Or, ‘It’s my dad!’ The thing about generational stuff is that with every generation, you do it a little bit better than the generation before you. You can have absorbed these personality traits and these habits and these interests from your parents, [but] maybe do it in a way that works better for you,” McQuiston explains, pointing toward August’s love of puzzles. Whereas her mom lets unknown answers consume her, August sees them as opportunities to challenge herself.
Which is exactly why Jane intrigues August so much. Their attraction begins as a “fleeting moment of connection between strangers in a big city,” so August certainly doesn’t expect to see Jane again in the exact same subway car or to eventually find out that she’s not from this time period. Once she learns the truth of Jane’s situation, August becomes determined to use all her puzzle-solving know-how to help her.
Another critical difference between McQuiston’s debut and One Last Stop is that August and Jane are fully out, both to those around them and to the world at large. Although coming-out narratives are a crucial part of queer identity (and played a large role in Red, White & Royal Blue), McQuiston says One Last Stop is “the story that comes after coming out. For a lot of queer people, coming out is not the end of a story, it’s the beginning. I don’t necessarily want to rehash my coming-out story again and again, because the richest experiences I’ve had as a queer person have come after that.”
Those who are beginning to explore their queer identity might feel as though coming out or putting a label on how they identify is like putting a period on their journey. But in actuality, that initial discovery gives way to a lifetime of new experiences. The themes of found family and figuring out who you are as an adult, separate from whatever familial environment shaped you, wind through both of McQuiston’s novels. The importance of “finding your people and letting them guide you” is one of the more powerful messages she imparts, knowing that shared communities are integral for many queer people who may feel misunderstood by family or even openly derided.
As McQuiston gradually builds a welcoming backlist for queer readers, it’s hard not to wonder what her younger self would think of One Last Stop. “I had to be at this point in my life to write [this book], because it’s so personal in a way I’ve only become secure enough to write about in the last couple years,” she says. “I think a young me would be floored that I had the nerve to write something so personal and think, ‘Oh my God, this is what we get to do? We get to write books? That is so cool!’ They would read it and be stunned that they could be this gay in public.”
With One Last Stop, it’s clear that McQuiston has come into her own as a person and an author. Whatever direction her work takes her next, McQuiston is unstoppable.
Author photo by Sylvie Rosokoff.