Jill's Reviews > Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
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Jul 06, 2014

it was amazing
bookshelves: best-of-2016

It’s no accident that Emily St. John Mandel opens her haunting new novel with a scene from King Lear, who ends up mad and blind but clear as a bell. One of that play’s memorable lines is: “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young/Shall never see so much nor live so long.”

Indeed, there is a divide between those who have borne much and those who will never see so much. In the opening pages, renowned actor Arthur Leander dies while performing King Lear. Before the week is out, the vast majority of the audience – indeed, the world – will be dead from the pandemic Georgia flu.

There are two key story lines – one before the end of civilization and one after it. The first focuses on Arthur, along with his three ex-wives, best friend Clark, and Jeevan, a one-time paparazzo and good Samaritan, who tries to save him. The other line centers on Kirstin, a young girl who witnessed Arthur’s death, who is now part of a Traveling Symphony, a musical theatre troupe that roams the wasted land to bring music and Shakespeare to the limited number of people who remain…not unlike original Shakespeare actors during plague-filled days of the past.

Woven into these tales is the inspiration for the book’s title. Arthur’s first wife, Miranda (likely based on the character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who utters, “O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”) She is the writer and designer of a sci-fi graphic comic, with threads of what eventually happens on earth: “There are people who, after fifteen years of perpetual twilight, long only to go home, to return to Earth and beg for amnesty; to take their chances under alien rule. They live in the Undersea, an interlined network of vast fallout shelters under Station Eleven’s oceans.”

Station Eleven is a terrifying, haunting, and stunning book that speaks eloquently on many key themes: survival during devastating times, our ephemeral existence and the fleeting nature of fame compared to the endurance of art. Indeed, it is only our shared stories – from Shakespeare to graphic books – that ties us all together, connects us and makes us human.

After turning the last page, I sat completely still for a minute, stunned, before taking my dogs out. While outside, I was driven to tears by the beauty of the fireflies lighting up against a dark Chicago night. Station Eleven – in many ways, a psalm of appreciation for the simple things in our current existence – wields THAT sort of power. It’s an amazing book and is highly recommended.

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Reading Progress

July 6, 2014 – Started Reading
July 6, 2014 – Shelved
July 10, 2014 – Finished Reading
May 31, 2016 – Shelved as: best-of-2016

Comments (showing 1-28 of 28) (28 new)

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BooksnFreshair (Poornima Apte) Okay now I definitely need to get back to this one :)


Jill Didn't know you started it, P'ma. Can't wait for your review.


BooksnFreshair (Poornima Apte) I have no idea what got me sidetracked, you know how it is :) Have you read her previous books? Each one is different. I love them all.


Jill No, but I do want to read the Lola Quartet.


BooksnFreshair (Poornima Apte) Let me see if I have a physical copy somewhere. I can send it to you if I do...I also loved The Singer's Gun.


Jill Thanks, P'ma. You're a pal :)


BooksnFreshair (Poornima Apte) Okay, I checked. I have only an e-galley from Netgalley. Not sure one can transfer those, right?


Jill No, but I like to read print books whenever possible. I've got a whole stack anyway. I'll look for it at our $1 book fair next month. I always end up with a slew of books that I want!


BooksnFreshair (Poornima Apte) I am supposed to take a close look at my shelves soon, If I find any of her books I will send them. I know what you mean about print books! :)


Joyce Jill, this is not my typical type of book, but you have it sounding so good. And really I do like to get out of my comfort zone even if it takes a little doing to get me going. Thanks as always


message 11: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Joyce, I typically don't like dystopian and had to get out of my own comfort zone. But this book addressed "what it means to be human" -- one of my favorite themes in literature.


message 12: by Jenny's (new)

Jenny's  I loved this review Jill. Some of us are born to read, some to write, and some can do both! Thanks for the great experience.


Karen Lovely review! I just finished, and am ready to read Lola's Quartet as well.


Elyse This is THE BEST review!!!! I'm almost done with the book...and your review does sooooooooooo much justice to "Station Eleven" Thank you!


Joyce Thank you Jill. Just finished. Makes one think of how fragile our world is and what might happen if a little bad "bug" got out of hand.


message 16: by Elizabeth (new) - added it

Elizabeth Fullerton-CPL book discussion selection for August, so I'll get around to reading it now.


message 17: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill ...the library on Fullerton? Not far from me at all.


message 18: by Elizabeth (new) - added it

Elizabeth Yes -- and two blocks from my house! I'll confirm this week but I believe the discussion will take place on Thursday, August 11, 6:30 - 7:30. If you'd like to join us, that would be fabulous!


message 19: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Might actually work! I'll tentatively mark it in and let's talk as it gets closer.


message 20: by Peter (new)

Peter Corrigan Your review just made me wish I written another, better one. Well done!


message 21: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Awwwwww. Thanks so much


message 22: by Richard (new)

Richard Goffman You are the first person I've heard who has been able to make any sort of connection between Lear and Station Eleven, and it is an interesting one. I don't know if I buy it totally, but you have given me food for thought. So thanks.
Although I agree with so many who feel the author has a beautiful way of painting with words and revealing deeply hidden emotions, I was distracted by too many illogical events. The most illogical to me -- maybe I'm crazy -- but... They didn't survive a nuclear disaster, they had survived a plague. Infrastructure doesn't disappear, though I like the notion that gasoline could "go bad," something that doesn't occur to the freaks in Mad Max World. But these people knew what electricity was, and they knew what generators were. It should not have taken TWENTY YEARS to generate any electricity. And the nice people at the airport didn't even have it on their agenda.


message 23: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Richard, I'm surprised so little has been made of King Lear, since an author rarely sets up her first scene by accident.

Perhaps you're right about the electricity. I have joked with friends that I have a well-developed right brain and an atrophied left brain; for me, it would take centuries to figure out how to generate electricity. So I was able to buy into the premise. I can see why others -- like you -- might have some doubts.


Carolyn Mck I know I'm prejudiced against doomsday books and so this counted against Mandel before I even started this. You obviously got a lot more out of it, Jill, and as always have written a review full of insights and original thoughts. I like your Lear connections.


message 25: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Carolyn, there are only a few dystopia books that I've really liked -- this being one of them. Another was Peter Heller's Dog Stars. But, on average, I'm with you on not enjoying "doomsday" books.


Peter Warshaw Jill, thanks so much for your comment regarding King Lear (above) re. Station Eleven (which I am currently reading). “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young/Shall never see so much nor live so long.” Great line.
By the way, ages ago I read Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”. Isn’t that based on King Lear? Or am I confusing Lear with another of Shakespeare’s tragedies?


message 27: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Yes, Peter, A Thousand Acres is, indeed, based on King Lear. Btw, have you read Ian McEwan's Nutshell (based on Hamlet)? To me, it's amazing how today's authors are tapping into the Bard so creatively!


message 28: by Crumb (new) - added it

Crumb Amazing review, Jill! You captivated me with your words.


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