When we first meet Iona Iverson, she is on her way to catch a train, headed to work in central London. She is wearing a bright red suit and carries a small dog and a large purse. Once on the train she pulls out a bone-china cup and saucer and a Thermos of tea. She carefully spreads out her belongings (and her dog) to make sure nobody sits near her.

Ah, I thought, as I read; a typical quirky, buttoned-down English spinster. Hoo boy, was I wrong.

Clare Pooley's "Iona Iverson's Rules for Commuting" is a poignant, funny delight. The story quickly widens to accommodate an ensemble cast, train commuters all — Sanjay, a shy but more than capable nurse; Piers, a manspreading self-important businessman; Emmie, a quietly furious ad copywriter.

But the heart of the book is Iona, not a buttoned-down spinster after all but an advice columnist for a failing magazine, a former wild and audacious "It" girl, now devoted to tall, Black and gorgeous Bea, her longtime partner.

Despite her prickly buffer zone on the train, Iona bonds with the other commuters after one of them nearly chokes to death on a grape. Over time, as each one falls on hard times or reveals a painful secret, she's there with tea, compassion and unusual advice. And then, of course, it's her turn, as her editor gives her bad news.

This entertaining novel reminds us that people are seldom who we think they are at first glance, and that community can be found just about anywhere.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.

Iona Iverson's Rules for Commuting

By: Clare Pooley.

Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books, 352 pages, $27.