Monday, October 12, 2009

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel - 256 pgs


Book CoverConstantly on the run from her past, Lilia's life revolves around setting up temporary homes and jobs for herself, only to run and leave it all behind when her fancy for flight strikes. After arriving in New York, she begins a relationship with Eli, a young man jaded about his future prospects and friends. In fact, the only thing that seems to excite Eli anymore is his fledgling relationship with Lilia. She unexpectedly leaves him one morning, with no clues to her disappearance or contact information left behind. As Eli finds himself slipping back into depression and obsessing about where in the world Lilia has gone to, he is surprised by the arrival of a strange postcard telling him to come to Montreal, where he will be reunited with Lilia. Leaving everything behind, Eli rushes to find her. As the story of Eli's pursuit continues, it is interspersed with flashbacks of Lilia's childhood, to a time when she was abducted by her father and the ceaseless traveling began. After arriving in Montreal, Eli meets the woman who sent the postcard, Michela, a young woman with odd ties to Lilia, and who is anxious to find and question her as well.

This book seemed to have a corner market on atmosphere. From the first few pages, I felt that there was something singular about the mood of the story, and I was pleased to discover that this ambiance remained strong throughout the book. For example, there were a few scenes depicting the insomnia of one of the characters that I felt were pitch perfect, and I thought that the author had managed to capture the gritty feeling of greasiness that accompanies those long nights when sleep will not come easily. She also managed to convey the realities of the unyielding travel that Lilia had so perfected and the strangeness of being in a landscape foreign to your own.

It was these descriptions and the unique flavor that pressed dauntlessly throughout the prose that really held me to the page and made me want to see this story to the end. There was something so starkly realistic and unwavering about the way these scenes came together and the way that the plot played out that made the story within the pages seem very immediate and pressing. The book very gracefully explored the unique qualities that an unexpected absence of a loved one can take and how that absence can affect even the smallest details in someone's life.

In delving into Eli's emotional reactions to Lilia's disappearance, I felt the author was exposing some very fundamental truths about the pain of loss and the agonies of unexpected separation. When I was about halfway through the book, I realized that Lilia, being the on the other side, had never had to experience these longings and anguish. Lilia, being the perpetrator of these disappearances, dealt with other sufferings, but even these were of her own making.

Although I did really like a few of the characters, the only one I felt any emotional attachment to was Eli. I think this was intended, because he was the only one who got an ample amount of exposition and it was mainly through his eyes that the story unfolded. Initially I found him to be slightly detached, but as the story progressed he became more involved, both in his own circumstances and those of the people surrounding him. He evinced a great growth of character, which is something that is always pleasing for me to see.

I didn't feel the same affinity for Lilia or Michela, and though I tried, I couldn't get fully invested in either of their personal circumstances. I think this was due to the fact that they were much more disconnected from reality than Eli was. Lilia and Michela had some very similar character traits and behaviors, yet they were still starkly different and singular. I took some time to compare and contrast the two girls and was surprised to find similarities that I had initially not noticed.

Though the plot of the book was somewhat winding, it was not convoluted and therefore was easy to follow and get invested in. There were a lot of clever surprises hiding in the narrative that gave the story multiple levels and depth. I also appreciated the mood of the story, which was very somber and serious. The emotion seemed very consistent throughout and the characters showed a great and believable range of sentiment given their circumstances and situations. There were various aspects of emotional layering in each of the characters, particularly in the case of Michela. She was at once domineering and in charge, but also curiously lost and vulnerable in ways that did not outwardly manifest themselves. I also really liked the writing style. It was very fluid and nuanced, which gave the book a great readability and denseness, and the alternating sections were intertwined with a precision that wove the two sides of the story together effortlessly.

This was a very diverting and emotional read. I think it would be great for those who appreciate novels with both a well developed plot and set of characters, and those who really enjoy lyrical writing. Though it is a wistful and sad story, I think it deals with the themes of loneliness, abandonment and disillusionment very deftly and absorbingly, and the plot is highly original. If you are looking for something that is a bit out of the ordinary but cleverly written, I would definitely suggest this book.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

10 comments:

bermudaonion said...

This book sounds so good! I'm adding it to my wish list.

Suko said...

This book does sound intriguing. Your review is well written and makes me want to read Last Night in Montreal.

Wendy said...

What a terrific review of this book - I also felt quite engaged with the characters when I read it earlier this year. Glad you liked it!

Diane said...

It seems everyone who reviewed this book liked it. I won a copy and can't wait to read it. Great Review :) thanks

Emily St. John Mandel said...

Thank you for your wonderful and very thoughtful review. I'm glad you enjoyed the book!

Aarti said...

This book isn't in my general frame of reading, but I'm intrigued. I sometimes have insomnia. I used to get "restless leg syndrome," but haven't gotten it so much recently. Watch I just jinxed myself!

Marie said...

Sounds perfect for me! thanks for the great review- i'm going to have to look for it now!

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

I'm always looking for something out of the ordinary! That's one reason I've pretty much stopped reading mysteries. They all seem so cookie cutter...

Thanks for the great review!

Dar said...

I agree, this is a book out of the ordinary. I didn't mind it although some of the wording threw me off at times.

Petunia said...

I don't know how I missed this review but it is most excellent. I love all the things about the book that you detailed as well. It was certainly original and kept my attention. I was heartbroken for each character because you could tell why each behaved the way they did. They all dehaved according to some past hurt and continued to hurt each other along the way. It was moving and has stuck with me over several months.

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