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.
I’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.
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.)