I was first drawn into Emily St. John Mandel’s world back in 2015, when Station Eleven caught my eye after popping up in a few “best of” lists. It became an immediate favorite, and I know that love is shared here within our CBR community! I’ve read it twice since first picking it up, most recently in March, right as the world started to dip further and further into pandemic horror. I wrote in a previous review that I would not have picked up The Glass Hotel had it not been written by Mandel; the write-up did not appeal to me on first glance, but Mandel won me over with her careful eye and sparkling language.
Why all of this focus on the past? Glad you asked! I was curious about Mandel’s pre-Eleven work, and I picked up Last Night in Montreal in a used-book haul earlier this fall. I did not realize at the moment that it was her first novel, but upon reading it…it shows. This book has BIG “first novel” energy, but the bones of her future work are present, if a bit obscured.
Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel both depict longing, loss, despair, and identity in crystal clear prose. They both take characters who have had their worlds pulled out from under them, and there is hope and growth amidst the chaos and cruelty. Last Night in Montreal has not figured that out- there’s a good deal of misery porn in this one; not only do terrible things happen to multiple people, they are then defined by their trauma and doomed, if not to repeat, but to inflict that trauma on everyone that they meet.
Lilia has a confusing past; she can’t remember it all, and she won’t share it with others. She was abducted as a young child by her non-custodial parent, and she now, at 23, sparkles with Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl energy. We get the MPDG descriptors, as whenever we see Lilia as an adult she is being described or remembered by the loathsome Eli. Eli is the unmoored young man pulled into her wake, and when she ghosts him he follows, uninvited and unprepared, to Montreal. Eli is…the worst. He’s a stalled academic, a wannabe artist, and a self-important sad sack. He demands help but refuses to give it, spills secrets, ruins the lives of others, and is a needy and cruel boyfriend. Unfortunately, we have to spend A LOT of time in his point of view, which is really too bad as even when he is engaged in interesting things, he is just so unlikeable that it’s really hard to give him and his story the time of day. Lilia, her mysterious father, a rumpled PI, and a nightclub dancer who dreams of tightrope walking round out the cast, and when the story is focused through their eyes it is gripping, delicate, and moving. Whenever Eli takes the wheel, which is frequently, the careful beauty of the story slams on the breaks.
Last Night in Montreal has some stunning moments, some beautiful bits of dialogue, and delicately timed twists, but it is mostly overloaded by finicky characterizations, overdramatic gestures, and pain for the sake of pain. I look forward to future work from Emily St. John Mandel, but I think I am done looking into the past.