Wednesday, November 19, 2014

book review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The backstory: Station Eleven is on the 2014 National Book Award short list. Update: it was also longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Prize.

The basics:  "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." (via the publisher)

My thoughts:  I had high hopes for Station Eleven even before it was longlisted (and then short listed) for the National Book Award. Emily St. John Mandel is an author I've been meaning to read for years (and an author whose early books grace my shelves, unread), and this novel was set to be her break out hit. And it has been. But as a reader, I never connected to the work or its characters.

The premise is interesting, and I typically enjoy narratives that bounce across time and whose characters share unlikely connections. The writing is quite excellent. And I loved the tension in the early chapters, as the Georgia Flu began. When the action shifted to the years after the flu, however, and the nomadic acting troupe, I grew bored. I celebrated as the plot shifted back to the time before the Flu, but I struggled to connect with any of the members of the troupe. St. John Mandel uses the variety of ages of troupe members to help shape the reader's understanding of the world after the Flu:
"I used to watch for it," he said. "I used to think about the countries on the other side of the ocean, wonder if any of them had somehow been spared. If I ever saw an airplane, that meant that somewhere planes still took off. For a whole decade after the pandemic, I kept looking at the sky."
Despite passages like this one, which is both beautiful and helps describe the world, I failed to connect or care about anyone in the troupe or their journey. This novel is one I objectively assess as good, but it wasn't a joy to read, despite its premise and writing, and while I appreciate what St. John Mandel did, I wanted it to be great, and I wanted the reading experience to wow me more than to feel like I was slogging through it, as the troupe slogs through life.

Favorite passage: "Hell is the absence of people you long for."

The verdict: Most reviews of Station Eleven mention how atmospheric and elegant it is, but this book and I failed to connect. I wanted to like it so much more than I did, but while I didn't enjoy it, I can appreciate the flashes of beauty in its writing. Overall, I was disappointed, but this one seems to be otherwise universally loved.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 353 pages
Publication date: September 9, 2014 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Station Eleven from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Emily St. John Mandel's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. I have seen so many rave reviews for this book, but I haven't rushed out to get a copy as I didn't enjoy a previous book of hers. "I failed to connect or care about anyone " was my problem with her last book (which I can't remember anything about - including the title!) so it is actually quite good to see this review and wipe it from my list. I don't think she is my type of author,

  2. I hope to try the audio version soon. Sorry it wasn't better for you.

  3. I read one of her other books and felt the same way about that one. I am in the minority though!


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