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Read of the Week: Station Eleven

I started reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven right at the height of the Ebola scare, which given its premise, probably wasn’t the best timing, but I quickly became immersed in this wonderful, multi-layered novel.

Hollywood actor Arthur Leander is performing in King Lear one snowy night when he suddenly has a heart attack and dies onstage. Jeevan, an EMT in the audience, attempts to assist Arthur, but is unable to save him. Kirsten is just a child at the time, performing a small role in the play, as she witnesses Arthur’s death. Meanwhile, across town the hospital has been overrun by patients dying from a new strain of influenza. In a matter of days, 99% of the population has succumbed and civilization has collapsed.

The story picks up again 20 years later with Kirsten, who survived the pandemic. She has taken up with the Traveling Symphony, which journeys between settlements performing music and Shakespeare because, to quote its motto, “Survival is insufficient.” The novel moves back and forth between the past and present, as we discover more about Arthur’s rise to fame, his failed marriages, and the lives of other characters who are all connected in some way. When the Traveling Symphony comes upon a settlement led by a mysterious and ominous prophet, they make a hasty exit in search of a nearby airport, where it is rumored there is a Museum of Civilization.

Station Eleven has gotten great reviews and has been showing up on many “Best of 2014” lists, and it’s well deserved, in my opinion. I was hooked from the very beginning with the sudden death of Arthur and the frightening outbreak of the deadly pandemic. But the novel is not really about the pandemic, but about the lives of these characters and their connections, and how they move on and find beauty in life again. The characters’ stories fascinated me and the creepy overtone of the post-pandemic society and the shadowy prophet had me engrossed until the very end. One of my favorite reads of 2014!

Fans of this novel may also enjoy The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker or California by Edan Lepucki.

This review was previously published by the Deerfield Review.

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