Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Synopsis from Goodreads:
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
Warning for potential spoilers ahead.
This book was amazing. Everyone and everything was connected in so many different and intricate ways. Even if you couldn’t see how at first, you saw later. And the different ways all of the plot lines and characters were connected were amazing.
Not all of the characters and their stories held my attention, of course. I found the parts with Kirsten in the future to be the most interesting, and then everything to do with Miranda. Jeevan’s plot didn’t interest me as much, but I still enjoyed reading it.
Mandel’s writing style is phenomenal. The different ways she revealed the characters and the world really appealed to me. I liked the traditional chapters, but I also liked the chapters taken from Kirsten’s interview in New Petoskey, and I liked the epistolary chapter.
But I think where Mandel’s writing really shone was in the chapters about Clark at the Severn City Airport. The short scenes in each chapter, jumping around, reminded me of Kirsten’s comment about missing time, how she didn’t remember the first year. It was a really good parallel, showing how Clark and the others at the airport were also missing time, and it showed them struggling to adjust in a way that made it easy for me to picture myself in their place.
The pacing of short chapters and long, short scenes and scenes that take up an entire chapter, also really helped me fall into the world and the characters’ struggles. I think the break-up of sections, chapters, and scenes was phenomenally done, especially towards the second half where each section was no longer just following one group of characters but had chapters that tied together thematically but took place at different times.
With all of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic books out there, this one really stands out because it’s not about the collapse. It’s about people, both before and after the collapse, and connections.
In the end, all of the plot lines can, I feel, be summed up by that Star Trek quote: because survival is insufficient. It’s not enough to survive, whether you’re living today or in a post-apocalyptic world. You need something more than just survival, and each of the characters, in their own ways, tries to answer that need.
On a side note, being from Michigan, I loved getting to read about places I knew and have been. I haven’t been to Severn City or St. Deborah by the Water, but I spend my summers up near Petoskey, I’ve been to Toronto many times – heck, I’ve even had an Orange Julius! So those were fun little I-know-this moments for me, which might have deepened my appreciation for the book, but which are hardly necessary for someone just picking it up.
In sum, five stars would read again would recommend to everyone. Seriously, if you haven’t read it, you should consider picking it up.
Station Eleven fills my Future slot for the When Are You Reading? Challenge. Huzzah!