Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher:  Knopf
Summary:  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.


I enjoyed this one though it felt a bit slow just after the beginning. Janeev Chaudhary & his brother Frank were most interesting to me. Clark, friend of departed Arthur recounting life in an airport terminal where the Museum of Civilization exists. Elizabeth & Tyler (ex-wfe of Arthur & his son) and their path to marauding cult religion after the fall. Kirsten, expert knife wielder and actress in the Symphony. All these people had a connection to Arthur and the threads of their scattered lives are somehow tethered in the after. The comic book of Miranda another of Arthur's ex-wives, figures heavily in the after as copies survive and so does the penchant to name a dog, Luli.

The bit with Clark & Garrett chatting about long dead corporate-speak was well done. How would people with no knowledge of the present decipher our documents in the future? Seeking Alpha. Low hanging fruit. In the mix. Interfacing. Actioninzing new opportunities. Shoot an email. Touch base. Reach out. Circle back. By contrast, we're shown that via the Travelling Symphony, Shakespeare & music are alive, understandable and very much relevant to people in the after.

I almost gave up about a quarter way in because there was so much focus on Kirsten & the Symphony group & so much of Arthur's life as a celebrity & actor, but I'm glad I stuck it out. The back half of the book pulled me along, totally hooked. Definitely recommended.

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