The BUZZ: Station Eleven was a 2014 National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller. This is Mandel’s fourth novel.
The GIST: This ingenious story opens in the middle of a performance of King Lear and moves swiftly to the end of the world as we know it. By chapter three, a pandemic is well on its way to destroying most of the human race. Twenty years after the tragedy, the few who have managed to survive are clustered in settlements built around landmarks of the old world: truck stops, hotels, airports, and main streets. A brave theatre troupe travels across a small sliver of North America, performing Shakespeare’s plays for any groups of people they find. This company of actors and musicians are committed to their art and, because they are willing to take to the decrepit and dangerous roads, they are some of the few who have seen anything beyond a single settlement. There is no arch villain and no alien race to contend with – any dangers come from within humanity itself. The plot jumps crisply between the post-pandemic present and the past. The thread that weaves the before-and-after together is the life of a famous actor; although he died on the eve of the end, he connects many of the surviving characters in unexpected ways.
The WRITING: Clever and fearless. Mandel’s imagination is vast, and her powers of observation are impressive. This tale is unnerving but impossible to walk away from. The back stories that round out the characters, the coincidences and connections, and the role of Station Eleven itself keep the pacing just right. Rather than be dragged down into the tragedy of humanity’s near destruction, we are fascinated by the lives of those who survive, and we are pulling for them.
BUY or BORROW?: Borrow. Because it was billed as a post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel, I avoided Station Eleven, despite its stellar reviews. This is not science fiction, though, and the story spends as much time in the present as it does in the imagined future. I was quickly swept up in a world none of us wants to think about and in Mandel’s exploration of the world we live in today.
When night began to fall they gathered by the lead caravan, which had once been an extended-bed Ford pickup truck. “Because survival is insufficient,” words painted on the canopy in answer to the question that had dogged the Symphony since they’d set out on the road.