Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel (20 Books of Summer #2)

Lilia knelt by the side table between the beds, extracted the hotel room Bible from the top drawer and opened it to the Sixty-ninth Psalm, fumbled in the drawer for a motel pen. She wrote fast and scrawling over the text on the page, I am not missing. Stop searching for me. I want to stay with my father. Stop searching for me. Leave me alone. She signed her name and her hand was shaking, because there were still people in the world who wanted her found: she had been leaving this message in motel-room Bibles for so long now, so long, and the messages were reaching no one. It was like throwing messages in bottles in the ocean, but the bottles were drifting far from shore.

6105964I’ve had Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal on my TBR list for four years now, ever since I read Station Eleven (still one of my favorite books.) It was her first novel, published in 2009. It felt like a first novel to me. Parts of it were gripping, parts of it were lovely, parts of it made me roll my eyes. Overall I enjoyed it and the last half made up for some of the flaws of the first half.

The novel opens with Eli, a perpetual student working on his unfinished and overdue thesis. He is gradually realizing that his girlfriend, Lilia, has left him for good and not just slipped out to get the newspaper as she had said on her way out. We learn more about Lilia and Eli, how they came together, and then we dive into Lilia’s past. It turns out she’s been leaving places and people for a very long time, ever since she was a little girl and she left her mother’s house in the middle of a snowy night, running into the arms and waiting car of her father. A life spent growing up on the road, pretending to be home-schooled (while actually getting a pretty good education; her father cared deeply for her and quizzed her, took her to libraries, bought her books, taught her languages.) She has been moving for so long it’s all she knows. She doesn’t know how to put down roots in a city or in a relationship for more than just a few months.

While we travel along with young Lilia and her father from hotel to hotel, there is another person traveling not far behind: a private investigator her mother has hired, named Christopher. He’s in a crumbling marriage and he and his wife are in the running for Crappiest Parent of the Year. His daughter, Michaela, becomes just an afterthought as he gets more and more obsessed with Lilia’s case. In turn, Michaela becomes obsessed with the young woman who has taken away her father’s attentions. The past becomes present as Eli and an adult Michaela become acquainted during Eli’s desperate hunt for Lilia.

I liked elements of this story very much: the scenes from the road with Lilia and her father, the scenes of the night she ran away from home (or was she kidnapped? We find out more as the story unfolds.) There’s a bit of a mystery to the beginning of Lilia’s story (Why is there broken glass in the snow? Why does Lilia have scars on her arms?) And the hunt for Lilia at the end, with Eli and Michaela coming closer, that part’s interesting. Michaela is a compelling character, so wrecked by the neglect of her parents and her own obsession with Lilia.

41BnT+ssNUL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_What I didn’t like was a certain preciousness to the characterization of Lilia – she was a “manic pixie girl” who bewitched Eli.  (Her hair was dark and cut unevenly, in a way that he found secretly thrilling; he knew that when it got too long she cut it herself, fast and carelessly, not necessarily in the presence of a mirror.) And the scenes of Christopher’s family life when Michaela was younger were annoying and ridiculous. He and his wife met because their parents were in the traveling circus together (?!?) and he wouldn’t confront his wife when he finds a stranger cuff link and TIE in his bedroom(!?) I couldn’t buy the extent to which he abandoned his daughter in pursuit of Lilia either. I just didn’t believe it.

All in all, though, this was an entertaining book, especially the second half. Michaela is playing with Eli to get some information he has on Lilia’s past, and she won’t tell him where Lilia is until she gets it. Yet they seem to form an oddly moving bond with one another. I have to say that the ending surprised me. Mandel plays with multiple time frames and perspectives in this novel as she did so brilliantly in Station Eleven, so I can see the seeds of her later style here.  While flawed, I’m certainly glad I read Last Night; I intend to read her other two novels written in between this and Station Eleven.

Have you read this or any of Mandel’s novels?

(Last Night in Montreal is the second book I’ve reviewed for my 20 Books of Summer reading challenge.)

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34 thoughts on “Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel (20 Books of Summer #2)

  1. I’m glad the second half was better for you! It seems like Mandel uses the same structure for this one as she did for Station Eleven and for The Lola Quartet. I’m going to have to look for this one!

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  2. Great assessment of this novel! I agree about its ‘debut’ feel- as if Mandel was trying too hard, but I did end up thinking it was great reading. The ending shocked me, even if I wasn’t quite sure what had just happened. I felt as if, ultimately, it was about obsession and how it wrecks lives.

    I also read Station Eleven and loved it. I think it is was one the most realistic apocalyptic novels out there.

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  3. I’ve been wondering about this one! I LOVED Station Eleven, but saw some pretty mixed reviews for Last Night in Montreal. I’m glad to hear the second half improved upon the first, and that you enjoyed it overall. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on her other two novels!

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  4. It’s often a disappointment when you backtrack to a loved author’s debut, so I’m glad you found a lot to enjoy in this one even if it was a bit uneven. I wasn’t so taken with Station Eleven, so I’ll wait and see what you think of her other books before deciding whether to try her again… 🙂

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  5. I’ve only read Station Eleven. At first this sounds like a really different book but it is a road story just like Station Eleven! have you read any of her other books? I wonder if she is big fan of road stories?

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  6. I haven’t read any of Mandel’s books because I don’t really feel any connection to her writing. A few years ago everyone on my Twitter feed was raving about Station 11, and though I thought it sounded like an interesting book, it was definitely not my cup of tea. I’m sorry her second book did not live up to the expectations set by S11 for you. Some of the scenes you describe – and don’t get me started on the manic pixie girl – do sound a bit too much, but hopefully, her next book will be better?

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    1. Station Eleven was a very tough act to follow for me, so I knew that going in to this one. It was almost inevitable that her first novel would disappoint in comparison. That said, it was pretty good and it held my interest despite its flaws. I have hope for her other two!

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  7. I haven’t read any of this author’s work, but I must say, I would be so hung up for an entire novel about a character named Lilia. Exactly how do you say that? I would be bothered. I’m surprised that you recommend a book that has so many flaws, but then I thought about it, and I often do something similar. What I’ve noticed, though, is that I don’t actually write “I recommend” or “I don’t recommend” on those particular reviews. Take for instance my most recent review, Domestic Apparition. I didn’t recommend it, but I didn’t not recommend it either. It had some great lines!

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    1. In my head I said “Lily-ah” but who knows?

      I guess I recommend it with reservations, because I was engaged by it despite its flaws. Also, I’d say if one loved Station Eleven then they should give this one a try.

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  8. I HATE the manic pixie girl trope, it’s so annoying, especially to women. Why do men idolize women who are complete messes? What a joke.

    Anyway, I loved reading this review because it reminded me of the book when I read it back in 2009. I met her when she came to our festival, which I was working at the time, and she was absolutely lovely. I remember her witnessing my near-close breakdown when an event wasn’t going right, and she was completely supportive and encouraging when I was at my worst. And really, she didn’t have to be! So yes, a very nice author who writes very nice books 🙂

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  9. I read this for the same reason as you did – I was curious about her other books after reading Station Eleven. And I liked it – I think I gave it 4 stars. But now I’m laughing at myself because I can’t even remember the shocking ending you mention. Ha! Oh well.
    I’m also hoping to sometime read the other two. She’ll probably have a new one out before I get to them!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I wasn’t wild about this either, if I’m remembering correctly — and I may actually have DNFed it? I know that of Mandel’s books, Station Eleven was by far the best, and then The Singer’s Gun was — not as good as Station Eleven, but it was similarly beautifully put together. As I was reading, I kept admiring the scaffolding of the book and the author’s ability to make a plot, not just put a series of events in order, if that makes sense.

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  11. I’ve heard so much about Station Eleven (which I’ve been meaning to read) that is nice to hear about other books by the author. I guess because I’m not a big sci-fi /dystopian reader so perhaps that’s why I’ve been putting it off. But the mystery elements make me curious about this one

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really not much for sci-fi myself although I do like the more speculative/dystopian ones rather than hard sci fi. Anyway, Station Eleven is so literary that I think it has broad appeal to people who don’t normally read sci-fi. Last Night in Montreal is definitely more of a mystery/family dynamics sort of story.

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