Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.
Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.
Review: Judging by the Goodreads reviews, a lot of people have incorrect expectations about this book. It’s not the people’s fault. I think the synopsis is misleading and makes the story sound much more action-packed than it really is. This is definitely literary fiction. It’s slow-paced, character-driven, and reflective. The majority of the story happens before the apocalypse. If you like that kind of thing, you’ll probably like this book. If you’re looking for a fast-paced post-apocalyptic novel, then you should probably look elsewhere.
The apocalypse begins with a famous Shakespearean actor dropping dead in the middle of a performance. Then, a deadly pandemic sweeps across the globe. We follow a group of characters who were connected with the actor. The reader meets two of the actor’s ex-wives, his son, his best friend, his young costar in the play, and the paparazzo who made a living following him around. For twenty years after the apocalypse, these characters’ paths cross and re-cross until two of them meet in a final deadly battle.
“No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.” – Station Eleven
If the apocalypse happened right this second, what elements of human culture would you want to preserve? That’s mostly what this book made me think about. Since parts of the story take place twenty years after the apocalypse, there is a whole generation of young characters who never knew the pre-plague world. How would you want them to remember us? Would you preserve our art and culture? Our religions? Our technology? Our passports and ID cards? Random objects that may have only been meaningful to one person?
What I love most about this book is how the author uses important objects to weave the story threads together. It shows how our relationship with our “stuff” changes as our circumstances change. What seems insignificant now can become treasured later. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but there’s a mundane object that’s repurposed in bizarre ways after the apocalypse. It provides a very creative plot twist.
“First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” – Station Eleven
I can see why this book has won so many awards. It’s well-written and brilliantly structured. I’m a structure junkie who’s read a lot of books with unusual structures, so I appreciate the work that went into Station Eleven. This novel is nonlinear with multiple points-of-view. It takes an extremely talented author to pull that off without leaving the reader confused.
Even though I like the book overall, there are two elements of it that I didn’t love: the characters and the plot.
I never felt connected to the characters. The prophet is creepy, but I didn’t find any of the characters very compelling. Before the apocalypse, most of them are rich people with relationship problems. After the apocalypse, they spend most of their time wandering around. I guess they’re realistic, but I’m not interested in wandering or rich people problems. If you like learning about the lives of famous people, then you might feel differently.
“They spend all their lives waiting for their lives to begin.” – Station Eleven
The plot also left me slightly disappointed. Most of the plague books I’ve read follow the exact same plot. Basically, if you’ve read The Stand by Stephen King, you can predict the plot of many plague books. First there’s a disease, then the characters wander around, then they form nomadic societies, then they form bigger societies, then they rebuild the world. I was hoping Station Eleven would deviate from that plot, but it didn’t.
Literary fiction is one of my favorite genres, so overall, I enjoyed Station Eleven. It’s worth reading for the structure alone. Just make sure you’re going into it with the correct expectations.