I just finished a really wonderful first novel. I first checked it out of the library, but since I was so entranced by the writing and the characters, I am heading out to the bookstore today to buy a copy. I want it to be on my bookshelves, along with all those other books that just looking at (whether or not I reread them) make me glad to be a reader.
It’s called Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel and I am at a loss as to how to describe this novel concretely in order to give you a sense of the story. When Lilia—who has a history of never staying in any one place for more than a few months—abruptly leaves Eli without any explanation, he determines that he’s going to find her. Gradually, through the author’s adroit use of flashbacks, the reader comes to understand Lilia’s compulsion to flee, to always be going somewhere other than where she is.
The story is important (and the ending is breathtaking), but it’s not—to me—the most important aspect of Mandel’s novel. That would be the characters and the writing. I found the characters to be wholly alive, in all their complexity, bad choices, general quirkiness, and faulty decisions. I loved how Mandel wove in the subject of Eli’s long unfinished doctoral dissertation (on dead and dying languages) into conversations or musings that illuminated the various characters. The novel is about loss, obsession, how we never quite escape from our childhood experiences, and love.
And the writing simply blew me away. Here’s a rather long quotation from the beginning of chapter three, when Eli is falling into despair about Lilia’s absence from his life:
The problem, Eli used to think before he met her, was that he’d never suffered except insofar as everyone does: the stalled trains, the alarm clocks that don’t ring when they’re supposed to, the agony of being surrounded by other people who all give the impression of being way more prolific and considerably more talented than you are, wet socks in the winter, being alone in any season, the chronic condition of being misunderstood, zippers that break at awkward moments, being unheard and then having to repeat yourself embarrassingly in front of girls you’re trying to impress, trying to impress girls and failing, girls who can be seduced but remain unimpressible, girls who can’t be seduced and/or turn out to have boyfriends in the morning, girls, being alone, paper grocery bags with falling-out bottoms, waiting in line at the post office for a half hour and then being snapped at because you don’t have the right customs declaration forms to send the birthday gift to your perpetually traveling brother, waiting in line anywhere, phone calls from a disapproving mother who doesn’t understand, the crowd of overeducated friends who understand too much and can’t resist bringing up long-dead philosophers and/or quantum physics over an otherwise perfectly civilized morning coffee, girls, an overall lack of direction and meaning as evidenced in your inability to either finish the thesis, abandon the current thesis and write a different thesis altogether, finish the different thesis, or heroically give up the whole thing completely and go to work at a gas station somewhere upstate, stepping in things on the sidewalk, lost buttons, most kinds of rain, standing in line at the grocery store behind the lady who just knows there’s a coupon in here somewhere, girls, and the sense that all of this adds up to a life that’s ultimately pretty shallow and doesn’t really mean that much, particularly in comparison to his older brother saving children in Africa.
Goodness, what a great sentence. I can just see Mandel sitting at a desk or coffee shop table writing out this list and the picture made me smile.
Try this novel out and let me know what you think.