I first heard about Station Eleven when George R.R. Martin recommended it on his not blog, calling it one of the best books of 2014. I always like to check out what my favorite writers are recommending, so naturally I added it to my reading list. When I was on vacation in Maine I decided to hunker down with the book to see what it was all about. Certainly the list of accolades had grown since its debut, though that doesn’t always guarantee a good read. And indeed, Station Eleven isn’t a good read. It’s an amazing, spellbinding read. This is going to sound real cliché but it’s hard to describe why this book is so great in so many words. It’s really something you have to experience yourself. I mean, I’m going to talk about it anyway, but the takeaway should be that my words only do it so much justice.
The story takes place before, during, and after a deadly flu wipes out about ninety-nine percent the human race, bringing an end to civilization as we know it. If this sounds overly familiar or unoriginal, I implore you to set aside your reservations because I promise this isn’t some kind of “YA Hunger Maze-ergent” retread. It’s the farthest thing from it. You see, twenty years after the pandemic, our story follows The Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors attempting to preserve the arts from the old world by performing Shakespeare in the Great Lakes region of North America. Our main character (from this part of the story anyway) is Kirsten, an actress who was eight years old when the flu broke out and whose clearest memory of the old world is of a production of King Lear in which the lead actor, Arthur Leander, died onstage of a heart attack.
I say that Kirsten is the main character, but I mean that in the loosest sense. This book jumps around to different periods of time, so multiple characters get their time to shine. It just so happens that we stick with Kirsten for most of the events taking place post flu. The focus of the story really ties into Arthur, highlighting his high-profile acting career and the lives of his friends and lovers. Most of what happens in the book links back to him at some point, but I won’t give any of that away.
If it sounds like I haven’t said much about the plot, it’s because I haven’t. I’ve given as simple of a synopsis as I can without going into a jumbled rant that might just confuse you. That’s partly because the book isn’t story driven; it’s character driven. This is very much a novel about people. People coping with the price of fame, with unrequited dreams, with troubled love, and with a seemingly hopeless new world. It’s sad, but beautiful in every sense of the word. Mandel really knows how to dig into the human mind, depicting a wide range of emotions and internal struggles that flow across the pages like a steady blue river, harsh and cold, but refreshing.
What truly makes this a wonderful book is the writing itself. I can’t remember the last time I found myself so entranced by a novel’s language. Mandel gives you gorgeous description without going full on Tolkien and keeps a soft but steady hold on her characters, never jerking them around to fulfill some pretentious message or overblown plot. It’s borderline poetry, which is fitting considering how many references to Shakespeare there are.
I can think of two minor things that may dissuade someone from picking this up. First, as I said, this is not some fast-paced, action-packed thrill ride with a heart pounding climax. Oh, there are a few tense moments, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a slightly slower pace than you might expect from an apocalyptic novel. Second, if you’re not a Shakespeare fan, you may have misgivings since the book starts with a performance of King Lear. However, I assure you that not liking/being unfamiliar with Shakespeare won’t put a damp on the wonder of this book.
I’m fully aware this has been less of a review and more just straight up gushing for possibly one paragraph too many, but I do think Station Eleven is that good. It’s a unique gem compared to what else is topping lists these days, a beautiful, sorrowful journey that ponders what we might cherish when all else goes dark.