Written by: Emily St. John Mandel
Review: 4.5 / 5 stars
Summary: 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 a terrible flu begins to spread. In one week, it is estimated that 99% of the world’s population is dead. Twenty 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. 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.
“First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”
Review: So, I normally take my summaries straight off of Goodreads, because I don’t think my own words can accurately summarize such great pieces of literature like this one. And normally, I also cut down those summaries to include only the vital information… but I couldn’t do it with this one. I started Station Eleven almost two years ago now, made it to about page 60, and then put it down. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, but simply that it didn’t capture my attention in the middle of an intense summer job that took literally all of my time and some personal issues I was using all my spare time to deal with. After a certain period of time, I simply forgot about it, and it free-fell behind my bookshelf until I was cleaning it out this December. It was pretty beat up, but my bookmark (read: sticky note) was still intact, so I thought – why not?
I am SO grateful that I decided to pick this book back up again, because: wow. I don’t know if I started reading this when I was in a different mindset or what, but I’m not 100% why I put it down with such disinterest. Emily St. John Mandel is an incredible writer, as she writes very simplistically but with unexpected depth. The entirety of the book bounces between the present and the past, which is usually a turn off for me, as it oftentimes makes the storytelling far more complicated, but I believe Mandel’s writing actually complimented this style. She obviously spent a copious amount of time simply planning the book, picking and choosing which scenes were relevant but also connected to others, because she did a beautiful job juxtaposing a tense dinner party at Arthur’s house with the Symphony arriving as guests in a cult-like community. Additionally, it is beautiful to me the actual items that connect the pre-apocalyptic world and the post-apocalyptic world: Shakespearian plays, performed by Arthur and then taken over by the Symphony; a matching set – the only set – of a comic series illustrated and authored by Arthur’s first wife; the now obsolete vanities such as Amex cards, high heels, and long defunct laptops that become museum fodder; and most importantly, humanity’s need to believe in anything – anything. Mandel highlights how the consequences of our actions and decisions have the ability to expand, magnify, spread, and grow beyond what we can even possibly imagine, and how, at the end, all of it can connect into one.
The only reason this novel was not a five-star book for me is that the summary was a bit misleading. I thought there was going to be a much deeper explanation of the pandemic that hit from a more pathogenic point of view; maybe it’s because I’m a nurse, but I was super interested to understand how the disease itself worked and if someone, somewhere, ever started to try and work on a cure for it or figure out why certain people were immune or really any additional information about it. But there’s also another part of me that questions: does the simplicity and over encompassing power of the disease actually improve the story itself? Without the extraneous information about the disease, the story’s purpose is clear: it is a tale of humanity, juxtaposed before and after humanity itself is destroyed – and I think that makes it far more beautiful than if they had delved into the deep dirty details of the Georgia Flu.
All of the characters are incredibly reachable, too, and I’m slightly confused as to how easily I was able to imagine each of them in my mind: Kirsten and Jeevan, the survivors of both disaster and humanity alike; the members of the Symphony, even though many are simply identified by the instrument they play; the citizens of a world lost, including the weary actor Arthur Leander, his numerous wives and affairs, Jeevan’s disabled brother he left behind, the ghosts of the Severn City airport… the list goes on. Normally, in my reviews, I like to highlight specific things I liked about certain “main characters”, but that’s the thing: although you can argue that Kirsten, and maybe Arthur, are the main characters, enough time is spent on the supporting cast that you feel yourself become invested in each person’s fate, and seeing how they all connect at the end – because, after all, it’s a small world, even in the time of an apocalypse.
Ultimately, this book has found a place on what I like to call my “recommendation shelf”. I unfortunately do not have enough room on my bookshelves for all of my books, so some of them get shipped off to random places in my apartment: on a ledge above my bed, below the drawer on my nightstand, on the back edge of my desk. But whenever someone comes in my room and sees my books, they immediately get drawn to the one logical place they should – the bookshelf. I keep all of my favorite books on my middle bookshelf, on the top shelf, because that is usually where their eyes and hands go first; also, it is easy to remember where to grab from when people do ask for recommendations. Station Eleven is also one of the books that I feel will become an across-the-board recommendation, for my friends who just want a book but are unsure of what exactly they want. It has the emotions that suffice for my romance novel lovers; the dystopian society for my sci-fi friends, and the depth for my more advanced readers who like to get a lesson out of the books they read. Additionally, I’m sure that the overall theme is one that all of humanity can relate to, which I believe is the point Mandel is trying to to make: that we all will continue searching for something more, even when there is nothing left, and that we will persevere in doing so.