Unpopular opinion: I liked Casey McQuiston’s sophomore novel One Last Stop a lot more than Red, White, and Royal Blue.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked Red, White, and Royal Blue a lot. It’s a sweet, optimistic queer romance and I’m always game for that. But there was a lot of hype for it, even when I read it. It has been immensely popular for a very long time. I read it back in 2019 because I was seeing rave reviews of it everywhere I turned, and it has only gotten bigger since then. I almost feel hipster because I read it before this huge wave, which is ridiculous because I was totally a bandwagon fan. The problem with overblown expectations is that they’re rarely met. I expected Red, White, and Royal Blue to be one of those I-can’t-stop-thinking-about-it books, but it wasn’t for me. I remember feeling the tiniest bit let down because everyone else liked it more than I did; I liked it when I expected to love it.
One Last Stop, however, hasn’t made the same waves. It has done all right, but it has not been a runaway success. It’s possible that this allowed me to come into it with more reasonable expectations, but I think that I’d’ve preferred it either way.
What’s it about?
When August, who spent her childhood helping track down the uncle who disappeared before she was born, moves to New York the last thing she expects is to fall in love with a girl who has been displaced from the 1970s and is stuck in the Q train of the subway. As August—with the help of her vibrant, kooky roommates—strives to help Jane get unstuck in time, she realizes that she might just be breaking her own heart in the process.
What’d I think?
One Last Stop is great. Before I read it, I saw the sales that lagged considerably behind its predecessor and a few less-than-stellar reviews and kind of resigned myself to disappointment. Yet another lackluster book for queer girls. And then I read it and loved it.
First and foremost, Casey McQuiston’s writing has matured between her first novel and this one. My biggest issue with Red, White, and Royal Blue was the pacing. It sped through periods I would have liked to spend more time in to rush to romantic reunions. One Last Stop, however, nails the pacing. Our leads, August and Jane, fall for each other relatively quickly—as is the case with most novels specifically coded romance—but their relationship still unfolds at a reasonable pace. August has things going on in her life besides her romantic entanglement, and although she does occasionally put them on hold to focus on Jane, she acknowledges this and has legitimate reasons for doing so. The rest of the world doesn’t disappear when August gets wrapped up in Jane: her coworkers notice when she misses work, she loses track of her classes and, and her roommates make fun of her for being single-minded. August spends enough time with Jane that the readers understand why she loves her and why it’s important that they be together, but she also spends enough time away and with other people that we never lose track of who she is as an individual beyond Jane.
Jane—by virtue of her supernatural situation—gets less chance to exist beyond August, but that’s forgivable. Jane is August’s love interest, but she is not an equal deuteragonist. She has significantly less pagetime, but through the various clippings and personal ads, we get a really good sense of who she is. August alone is our heroine, though, and I love her. She’s obsessive and meticulous and while obviously I did not spend my life obsessively dedicated to finding a missing uncle, I can relate to a lot of her neuroses.
One of my favorite things about this book is that it has an actual plot. That may sound like a weird thing to say, but a lot of romances don’t. Like, what was the plot of Red, White, and Royal Blue? A prince and the first son hate each other and then they love each other. If they’re not in love with each other, there is literally no story. In One Last Stop, August and Jane’s love story is a huge element of the novel that gives shape and flavor to the rest of it, but technically you could remove it and the bare bones plot would be mostly the same: our heroine discovers a woman who has slipped out of the time stream and is stuck in a subway, and she takes it upon herself to rescue her.
Now that I think about it, maybe that’s the disconnect with all the romance readers: they want more kissing and less time travel. (There’s still plenty of kissing).
My favorite part of Red, White, and Royal Blue was the queer history that McQuiston wove throughout it. Part of Alex and Henry’s courtship is bonding through queer historical figures like Alexander Hamilton and Eleanor Roosevelt. That queer history is even more present and even more alive in One Last Stop. Jane is actually from the 1970s, and she lived through and participated in the fight for equality then, and so we see through her eyes how queer life has—and hasn’t—changed in the past fifty years. Jane remembers bits of queer history that are fairly well-known (as well as any queer history is well-known considering that it’s never taught), like general rioting and the AIDS crisis, but she also lived through lesser-known moments like the UpStairs Lounge arson attack. I don’t know if McQuiston sets out to be a queer historian in her novels, but it’s certainly one reason I enjoy them so much.
The queer culture is vibrant in this novel. I liked Alex’s group of mostly queer friends in Red, White, and Royal Blue, but they didn’t really have much to do. That’s not true of August’s friends here. Side characters make or break novels for me, and my goodness do I love August’s friends. I can’t pick a favorite. There’s Niko, the sweet but slyly sarcastic psychic. There’s brilliant, artistic Myla who’s never quite sure what she’s making until it’s done. Larger-than-life drag queen Isaiah. Prickly but quietly sweet Wes who has an emotional support poodle. The group is joyously, fabulously queer and inclusive and I love it. They frequent drag bars and celebrate themselves in all their eccentricities between shifts at work. Just putting it out in the universe: if any friend groups like this want to adopt me, that would be amazing.
I love the way McQuiston has created this little family of outcasts. They’re such a loving, fun group. They remind me a little bit of the New Girl crew at their best, because of all the weird games and affectionate mocking. I enjoyed the central romance between August and Jane. I rooted for them to figure out how to save Jane from an eternity in a subway train. But mostly I loved this book for the sweet moments of friendship, like when Isaiah relocates his party to the subway so Jane can join in or when Wes sneakily fixes August’s squeaky door when she’s not around or when Myla ribs Niko for his horrible bartending. They’re such a great group, and the fact that McQuiston was able to create six such dynamic and interesting characters is really a tribute to her. I know I had a whole paragraph about how I liked that there was plot, but honestly if the whole book had been about August falling in with her roommates and hanging out and overcoming the weirdness of her childhood, I would have been totally fine with that.
Also, for the record, I think this is the first time I’ve ever experienced any media that has both a trans character and a drag queen. They’re so often conflated that my understanding of the differences has always been a little wonky. Like, I love both Unique from Glee and Angel from RENT, but I’ve always been a little confused by them. Ultimately I think Unique is intended to be a transwoman despite having a lot of characterization that skews more drag, but I never know how to talk about Angel. Transwoman? Drag queen? Nonbinary? One Last Stop is a great example of how representation can change the way people think and make them more accepting and understanding. My upbringing being what it was (read: very conservative), I was never exposed to drag and I have therefore never fully understood it, but I got to experience it here in a small way and can understand it a lot more. Also, even for the most clueless, Niko’s experiences as a transman and Isaiah/Annie’s experiences as a drag performer are clearly distinct.
Also just yay for representation in general. Jane is a butch lesbian. August is bisexual. Wes and Isaiah are gay. Niko is trans. And stepping away from gender and sexuality, Jane is Chinese-American. Myla is Black (and was adopted by Asian parents). August is plus-sized. Isaiah is Black. Wes dropped out of college and has an anxiety disorder with occasional mental breakdowns. They’re a hodgepodge of different races and sexualities and body types and life experiences.
This is a great book. I don’t usually read romances, but I made an exception for One Last Stop and it paid off. I enjoyed the sci-fi plot parts of it and found the central couple cute and easily shippable, but the heart and soul of this novel is the group of brilliant weirdos who are there for each other no matter what, whether it’s a setting up an impromptu séance, saving a bankrupt pancake house, or committing a few minor crimes in the name of true love. It has all the best elements of McQuiston’s first and more popular book—an appealing main couple, a dynamic squad of queer friends, a spattering of queer history—but it is a huge improvement. It’s rare that I rave about romances, but here I am. Please support this book both because it’s excellent and because it sucks that books about queer women don’t do as well as those about either straight couples or gay men.
I apologize for always recommending the same two wlw love stories, but I can’t help it. I keep trying to find new ones that I love, but so far there just aren’t that many. At least now I can add One Last Stop. It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura and The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding are adorable and very well written. The former has Asian characters, and the latter has a plus-sized lead and significant focus on platonic bonds.
Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat is also a pretty good romance. I don’t recommend it as highly as some of the others on this list because I personally never got behind the central romance (although I do love the larger platonic friend group), but I still enjoyed it and Albertalli is one of my favorites.
Super Adjacent by Crystal Cestari is also a cute book with a central wlw romance. It has literally nothing else in common with One Last Stop, but if you read One Last Stop, “queer women” is likely something you look for in a book.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is a wonderful novel. You’ve likely seen it trending on #booktok. It’s pretty much the only wlw book I’ve seen there, which makes me love it even more than I already did (which was a lot). It’s about a bisexual woman in Hollywood from the 50’s to the 80’s, so it overlaps One Last Stop both in wlw representation and, briefly, in time period. It’s a great choice in general, but particularly if you enjoyed the queer history bits of One Last Stop.
Not a book, but if you’re interested in queer history you might like Matt Baume’s YouTube channel. I stumbled across him randomly, and really like his stuff; he does in-depth videos about queer history through pop culture, and they’re always very interesting.
And, I mean, of course you can also read Red, White, and Royal Blue. I’m assuming you already have, though.
Okay, that’s it for the actual review! I also wrote this rant about a pattern I’ve noticed as a bookseller. I was going to delete it totally because I didn’t want to bog the review down with negativity that isn’t One Last Stop‘s fault and because it’s a little personal, but at the end of the day I feel strongly about this so I figured I’d tack it on the end where anyone interested could see it and anyone else could leave.
A tangent about concerning reading patterns:
I was excited when One Last Stop was released. Like I said: always down for a queer romance, and particularly so for queer women. Then I had a really uncomfortable conversation with a coworker that took me from I want to read it to please, please let this book be amazing and popular. Here’s what happened: my (female, mid-twenties) coworker loves Red, White, and Royal Blue. It is one of her favorite novels, and when I heard about One Last Stop I told her about it, naively assuming she’d be even more excited than I was. And she was… for about twenty seconds. She looked the book up and her interest immediately vanished. She said, and I quote, “Oh, it’s girls. I don’t want to read that.”
That interaction has forced me to look at readers differently. I used to be happy whenever I saw someone carrying it. Even though it isn’t my favorite book, I saw it as a good sign that a LGBTQ+ book was going mainstream. I took the opportunity to recommend other queer books, equally deserving ones with smaller audiences. And it made me feel safe suggesting my favorite books. I’m in Texas, so I always have to play that super-fun guessing game with my customers: are they homophobic? It’s one of the hardest parts of being a mostly-closeted-but-if-you-pay-any-attention-whatsoever-to-what-books-I-read-you-can-definitely-tell queer bookseller. Now I can’t assume that Red, White, and Royal Blue‘s readers are all LGBTQ+ or allies. I’ve been forcibly and uncomfortably reminded that at least some of those readers are straight women who think fictional gay men are hot but who are otherwise not supportive.
I started to look at One Last Stop as a litmus test. How many fans of McQuiston’s first novel would come back for her second? People adore Red, White, and Royal Blue. When I adore a book, I read the author’s other books; I keep an eye out for new titles and burn through the backlist. I think that’s probably how it works for most people, but it hasn’t been the case here. Red, White, and Royal Blue flies off the shelf, but One Last Stop doesn’t.
There could be other factors in play, of course. There are lots of reasons this book could be less popular, but I really, truly fear that it’s because there’s a large swath of the population who will read about queer men, but not about queer women. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s 2021 and I still have people who clutch their metaphorical pearls if I dare suggest that a young boy could enjoy a story with a female protagonist without spontaneously combusting.
Life is exhausting, isn’t it?