It’s still early in 2015, but I feel pretty confident saying that Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel will be on my list of the year’s best. I just loved this book. And I think that almost everyone could love this book, because it is so cleverly structured and covers so many kinds of stories without being too dense or 1000 pages long.
The short plot summary is that at some point much like today a pandemic swept the planet and killed 99.9% of the population. Twenty years later, a traveling symphony/theater company tours around the Great Lakes, playing music and performing Shakespeare for small settlements of survivors. This makes it sound very grim and futuristic, but it isn’t. The story jumps around in time and from character to character, so there are bits of stories happening long before the pandemic hits, and then during it, and at different points in the years afterwards. Which means that part of the book is “what you do when the world is falling apart” and part is “how we live in the new normal,” but another big piece of the story is about actors and artists trying to balance fame and creation and marriage in current-day Hollywood. The brilliant Swistle called the shifts in time and characters a relief, and that’s the perfect word–just when I would start to think I couldn’t handle what was happening in a particular story, the narrative would move forward or back and let me take a deep breath and keep reading.
In general, I appreciated that the story wasn’t unbearably dark. While the pandemic certainly doesn’t sound like any fun, Mandel focuses mainly on the very beginning as people are realizing what is happening, and then on life years later as people have adapted to to world post-pandemic. Maybe some people want the realism of The Road, but I am a delicate flower who can’t handle reading that sort of thing. And I was much more interested in hearing about how even with all the losses, there is still beauty in the world (painted on the side of the traveling symphony’s caravans is the motto “Because survival is insufficient”). I also loved the question that came up over and over of whether it was better/easier to remember what once was, or to have been raised only knowing what is possible now.
I always joke that my plan for the zombie apocalypse is to die in the first wave and not have to try to survive, and I stand by that. But this is one of the first books I’ve read that managed to make me incredibly grateful for air travel and refrigerator lights and antibiotics, while also making me feel like the World After might have some hope after all.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Graceful, sad, and hopeful.
You might also like: This book has the DNA of about 12 different books–it reminds me of everything. If you like the world-falling-apart bits, I’d recommend reading the Susan Beth Pfeffer Life As We Knew It trilogy, the The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, or How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (one of my favorite books of all time, although it’s so sad I’ve never been able to reread it). For more of the how-society-rebuilds pieces, try The Passage by Justin Cronin (actually mentioned by Mandel in Station Eleven). But if you like the traveling band of actors/Shakespeare parts the most, you might try The Great Night by Chris Adrian or the Canadian TV show Slings and Arrows. And while Could Atlas is a hard book to recommend–long and dense and people tend to love it or hate it–it has a similar “a bit of everything” feeling to it.