[Book Review] “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel


Is it good? Yes.

Should you read it? I don’t know.

Spoilers Ahead

Station Eleven isn’t the kind of book I’d normally read but I wanted to go to a book club and Station Eleven is what they were reading so I bought a copy and quickly read it over the weekend—just in time for the Tuesday MeetUp.

Station Eleven is an interweaving of several stories which take place before and after a pandemic[1] destroys civilization. The stories before the apocalypse follow actor Arthur Leander and his first wife Miranda who is drawing a comic book series Dr. Eleven. The stories after the apocalypse follow Kirsten, an actress in a nomadic band of actors and musicians who call themselves the Travelling Symphany. Kirsten likes reading Dr. Eleven and old tabloids about Arthur Leander.

It wasn’t until I was halfway through that book that I started to like it and it wasn’t until after finishing the book that I figured out what it was about.

The most important scene in the book is a nighttime party with a bunch of Hollywood bigwigs. Arthur is flirting with his soon-to-be second wife. Miranda is unable to connect with her husband’s friends so she goes outside to play with the dog instead.

Miranda has no friends of her own. She does well in business, eventually becoming an executive at a major shipping company. Her sole passion is drawing Dr. Eleven which she works on her entire life. She never publishes it commercially. She just does a tiny self-published printing, from which she gives two copies to her by-that-time-ex-husband Arthur. Arthur doesn’t really get Dr. Eleven so he gives them away.

Arthur has friends but they’re all superficial. There’s nobody he cares about who cares about him. Even though he’s famous.

Kirsten does have friends: all the members of the Travelling Symphany. Station Eleven is ostensibly about how everyone was connected in civilization and how that goes away after the apocalypse. But all the personal connections of the characters before the apocalypse were transient and superficial. Their relationships after the apocalypse aren’t. The author Emily Mandel doesn’t romanticize the apocalypse. Life after the apocalypse is nasty, brutish and short. But it’s a nice juxtoposition.

Why is this book good?

The scenes with the Travelling Symphany are exciting adventure, of course.

But what really got to me was Miranda’s loneliness. Her closest connection is to Kirsten, a girl she will never meet. The way Miranda felt at that nighttime party is a way I have felt many, many times.

  1. ↩︎

    Station Eleven was written before COVID-19.