Yes, it’s that time again … #BrunchBookClub is back and I’m here with reviews for both Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and The Magicians by Lev Grossman in one post. Once again, I’ve read the first in a physcial copy, and listened to the second (and what a long listen that was!). Want to catch up? We will be reading Just One Day by Gayle Forman and discussing it at the end of March – join us!
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.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it
This is one of those books that received all the hype when it was released, so I almost avoided it out of principle. Fortunately, a number of trusted reader advisory friends convinced me to pick it up and for us to include it as part of our Brunch Book Club, and I’m so glad that I did. Station Eleven is one of those books that takes a broad scope setting and manages to bring it into intimate detail using sharp characterization and a very clever storyline that intersects over time and landspace.
What impressed me most about this book was the attention to detail. Each of the characters was clearly defined at each stage in their life, and reading about their reactions to the events around them made you feel as if you knew them well. You could track the evolution of each character and saw exactly how events shaped their future decisions. There’s a sense of pathos in the fact that Arthur, the central figure who connects everyone, never actually sees the rise of the world post-pandemic. His death on stage brings events into motion for our protagonists, and I found it fascinating to see how all the different lives had been connected to Arthur in some way.
The world post-pandemic is scary and compelling. Mandel brings things to a logical state – loss of power, clogged highways, change in survival methods – but also makes us think about the psychological and emotional challenges that everyone must face. Boundaries blur, and the familiar landmarks that are present in the early states of the book’s narrative quickly fade away as places become known for current inhabitants rather than previous status. Relationships and friendships no longer exist in their old styles, and new alliances and connections are made based upon circumstance and shared experience. The theatre company becomes its own version of family, watching out for each other and caring for those who cannot continue. I did find it interesting that individual personalities were less important; in the case of the orchestra, people were identified by the instruments they played rather than their original names.
What struck me most was the inherent value of the tiny things that we take for granted. A good book, a comic, a watch, a memento – all of these things take on greater significance if only because they are the last remnants of our past. They trigger memory, provide comfort, connect us with those who are no longer around and keep us on the path when we would diverge. We are all on a journey to our own personal Museum of Civilization; what we bring with us is a reminder of who we used to be.
I think there are a lot of themes present in this book – sometimes, almost an overwhelming amount -and I’m looking forward to our Brunch discussion to figure out some with Michele.
A copy of Station Eleven was purchased for our #BrunchBookClub. It is published by Knopf and is available now from your favourite booksellers. ISBN: 9780385353304, 336 pages.
Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery.
But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined.
I chose to “read” this one by audio and I’m not entirely sure that this made a difference. There’s a LOT going on in this book, and at times I felt that this was a book of short stories, strung together with a cast of characters. This was a mix of grown-up Narnia meets the Lord of the Rings, heavily peppered with the darker side of Oz. There’s a feeling of being smacked in the face at times, as if being told that the fanciful dreams of your childhood should be left behind, because the reality is much more grown up and horrible.
I’ll be blunt: Quentin Coldwater may be the most annoying main character I’ve ever read. He’s a pompous ass, full stop. Some refer to this as ‘an adult Harry Potter’; if that’s the case, then this is Harry with an annoying factor of 100, melded with the worst bits of Draco. Because I kept wanting to like him and he kept knocking me back, it made it very difficult for me to care what happened to him.
“He wasn’t surprised. He was used to this anticlimactic feeling, where by the time you’ve done all the work to get something you don’t even want it anymore.”
I was more invested in the other characters – Alice, Eliot, Janet, Josh and even Penny. I felt more connected to them, and to their experiences. Quentin, for me, was an observer. He spent so much time commenting on what was happening that I never actually felt that he was truly part of the group – and I do understand that this is part of his allure. By not having an alignment, he is allowed to observe and comment upon each chapter of his time at Brakebills and beyond. From what I understand, Julia plays a much larger role in future books, and she definitely is more present in the TV series, and I think that balance is necessary.
I felt that it took too long to get to Fillory, and that the time there was the true story. The loss of childhood innocence and the painful realization of harsh realities is a common trope and one that I felt could have been expounded upon much more clearly. Too much of Brakebills talked about the idyllic world, when the reality of Fillory was the antidote to Brakebills’ dreamstate. I appreciated the trip to Antarctica as it was a jarring reality for the students that life – not just magic – is hard, and sometimes you will face things about yourself that you just won’t like. Otherwise, it was in Fillory that the magicians were really tested and held accountable, and the plot threads with the Chatwins really came into focus. I’ll confess to liking the television series much more than the book, probably because everyone keeps calling Quentin on his shitty attitude and behaviours.
“[F]or just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”
For me, there were too many story threads introduced; Grossman attempts to weave them all together, but some are lost along the way and I felt that I wasn’t interested enough in most of them to find out what happened. Erin Bow has commented that, “this book is interested in nihilism”, and that sums up my feeling as well. Had this book been told from Julia’s perspective from the beginning, I would have found it to be a far different kind of story.
A copy of The Magicians was purchased for our #BrunchBookClub via Audible books. It is published by Viking and is available now from your favourite booksellers. ISBN: 9780670020553, 402 pages.