Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel


Yes, I read another post-apocalyptic novel where civilization goes to hell in a handbasket. But in my defense, there’s Shakespeare! And comics!

The novel begins when Arthur, a fiftyish actor who is finally old enough to play King Lear, has a heart attack onstage. A young man in the audience who is training to be an EMT tries to help, and winds up comforting a small girl involved in the production after the ambulance takes Arthur away.

On his way home, the young EMT-to-be gets a call from a friend who works in a hospital, who warns him that an epidemic has broken out and that he should hole up at home and not talk to anyone. Since he knows this friend is not normally an alarmist, he stocks up on supplies and heads to his brother’s house to wait out the scare. From here, the story is taken up by several different characters – Kirsten, the young girl who was onstage with Arthur when he had his heart attack, Miranda, Arthur’s first ex-wife, and Clark, a friend of Arthur’s. We piece together from their stories of the present, future and past how all of these characters are connected, and what happened before, during and after the flu pandemic.

This novel is beautiful. I know it should be depressing, and yes, 99 percent of the population dies in the first few chapters, but what happens in the aftermath is not as bleak as you’d expect. Civilization as it was known disappears, communications between communities is limited to what news can be gleaned from travelers, and technology more sophisticated than hand tools is no longer of any use – but somehow, the survivors survive, the world goes on, and there’s still classical music and Shakespeare being performed, so really, how bad could it be? Plus there’s a graphic novel (loosely inspired by Spaceman Spiff from Calvin and Hobbes) which inspires two of the characters – one to make art, the other to start a cult. And did I mention the museum one of the characters starts – in an airline lounge, with cell phones and other useless devices as exhibits? And best of all, all of these things are connected, even if the people involved don’t know it. I only wish that the book had pictures, because the author’s descriptions of the graphic novel’s illustrations sound incredible. (Artists – make Station 11 the comic happen. Please.)

What reads like this? Well, the post-apocalyptic elements make it sort of like Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, or Roth’s Divergent. But the writing style for some reason reminded me of Ann Patchett – maybe because the story is vaguely similar to Bel Canto, where the world has gone to hell but art keeps the survivors going?


4 thoughts on “Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

  1. Barb Fisher

    I just want to add that this book was a good one to discuss with book group. Our group is filled with business women, moms, activists, and we all came with different observations about societies interdependence, which was fun. Love the blog, Mary. Thanks!

  2. Donna Lambe

    I LOVED this book for much the same reasons you mention. I was a bit surprised by the the reactions of others- they either loved it to pieces like I did or they just didn’the care for it at all. But perhaps that’s the greatest indicator of a valuable piece of art, the range of reactions and emotions it inspires.

  3. Peg

    I enjoyed this one too…. I would call it Poolside Post-Apocalyptic reading. Not nearly as long and complex as King’s The Stand, also no fantasy elements. And nowhere near as frightening as Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Parable of the Talents, which were so plausibly scary that I have never finished the Talents.
    I liked this story over much of the current post-apo stuff because Kirsten is real, not transformed in some Marvel comics way into a Super-Hero in three weeks, and indeed, she doesn’t even destroy the bad guy. I never slapped this one shut because the plot elements were unrealistic to the point of stupidity. (Sorry Divergent, I’m looking at you.)
    I agree, someone create Undersea and finish Miranda’s work. I was really mad at her passing.


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