Review: Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


TitleLast Night in Montreal
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
First Published: June 2009
Publisher:Unbridled Books
Source: Library
247 pages

   

I read this book for the Spotlight Series. Don't forget to check the tour stops for other books from Unbridled Books.

On the flap
Lilia Albert has been leaving people behind for her entire life. She spends her childhood and adolescence traveling constantly and changing identities. In adulthood, she finds it impossible to stop. Haunted by an inability to remember her early childhood, she moves restlessly from city to city, abandoning lovers along with way, possibly still followed by a private detective who has pursued her for years. Then her latest lover follows her from New York to Montreal, determined to learn her secrets and make sure she s safe.

Intense! That's what I thought once I turned over the last page. I read this right after White Oleander, so my mind is now in a huge philosophical introspection phase!

My opinion
Last Night in Montreal is a story that masterfully interweaves several complex elements. Lilia has been traveling for years, ever since her father abducted her from her home, when she was seven. For a long time, Lilia and her father were on the road. They kept moving from town to town. Lilia soon learned to read a map, how to hide from people, how to lie to curious passersby about who she was and why she wasn't at school. Her father gave her so many names over the course of the next several years, that the list spans pages.

A list of names, eventually expanding to ten or twelve pages: Lilia, Gabriel, Anna, Michelle. In every town her name was different; there were often, especially in the beginning, several names and stories in the course of any given month. At first Lilia and her father concocted the stories carefully together and practiced them on the way into town. Later they could play off each other without rehearsal - "Elizabeth," he'd call out, in the magazine section of a gas station store (those bright new stores, too large for the smallness of the town outside, with rows of shiny packaging and a strange stale smell like dead coffee and mildew), "Elizabeth, it's time to go--" and although she wouldn't ever have been called that name before, she'd recognize his voice and turn around and smile just like a real Elizabeth would, and then note the new name on the list in a library later. It wasn't an unhappy life. She liked traveling.

When her father finally stops traveling and settles down, Lilia cannot bring herself to stop.

Stop looking for me. I'm not missing; I do not want to be found. I wish to remain vanishing. I don't want to go home. -- Lilia

In the process, she leaves a lot of friends and lovers. When she leaves Eli, her lover from New York, to go to Montreal, she unleashes several things that culminates in many lives getting affected.

Initially, I felt quite antagonistic towards Lilia's father for planting the seed for her compulsive urge to travel. It is quite heart-wrenching to see the grief inflicted in Eli, who is consumed with a desire to track her and learn her secrets. Not all he learns makes him relieved. Not all we learn makes us relieved either. And when the crux of the problem - the reason for Lilia's abduction - is revealed, I was left gasping for air. For all that I imagined, it was definitely not that. That was a very powerful punch in my gut, and yet that was very fitting. It explained so much of what happened on the day that Lilia was found missing.

Investigating Lilia's disappearance is Christopher, a detective who was invited to work on her case. What follows is a compulsive obsession of a different type, as Christopher's personal life, and his relationship with his wife, and his daughter Michaela, are precariously balanced against his inability to give the case a rest. His initial interest soon transcends into a constant preoccupation in his every waking minute, till he gets consumed by overriding beliefs that he knows where Lilia is, at a particular moment. Michaela is quite clearly affected by the minimal presence of her father in her life. When however he comes home, one day, after an accident, she is determined to find out what happened to him. 

I enjoyed this book for its many layered story. I spent a day thinking of it, and I realized that I can still strip out certain incidents to find a hidden essence inside. Lilia's inability to remember what happened to her before she was taken by her father, becomes a crucial issue that affects herself, Eli and Michaela. Eli has been lately disappointed by his "fraudulence" in that he only talks of doing art, whereas people like Lilia actually practice it through her photographs and her talent in translating languages.

Emily's prose is very eloquent. The lyrical writing pretty much brings the people, the places and the situations vividly to my mind. Much as I loved this book, I found the start to be slightly slow, especially compared to the rest of the book. There was quite a bit of background-buildup, after the initial suspense in the first few pages. While I appreciated all that information once I got further into the story, it didn't help much in holding my interest initially. The ending, while very powerful and thought-provoking, didn't give me the closure I needed, at least not right away. It was after thinking about the book over a day that I discovered a lot many layers to it and the story became holistically complete to me. A very thought-provoking read, with heavy stress on the ramifications of one impulsive moment, that happened before Lilia was abducted by her father.

Overall, I strongly recommend this read. It was a quick read as well, but there is so much to appreciate in this book.

Title Demystified
Eli's, Michaela's and Lilia's last night in Montreal is when they each achieve closure with their past, their present and their future. That night, their lives are transformed forever, as they battle out the demons of their past. The story is a build-up to that last night.

Cover Art Demystified

She came out dressed all in black, as she almost always did, and carrying the three pieces of a plate that had fallen off the bed the night before; it was a light shade of blue, and sticky with pomegranate juice.

I quite enjoyed trying to figure this cover out, and the interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. Here's how I saw it. Broken plate - broken pieces - broken lives affected by one act many years ago. The pomegranate is a symbol of suffering and resurrection in Christianity. (Many religions/places have their own meanings.) Seeing the quartered pomegranate over the broken pieces of the blue plate washes over me the images of love, obsession, compulsion, suffering and acceptance that line this book.

What did you think?
Have you read this book? I'd like to know what you thought about it. Please leave your review link in the comments, or a brief opinion, if you hadn't reviewed it.

22 comments:

Cat said...

Wonderful review! Makes me want to read it despite the small reservations you have. I particularly like the way you've taken time to focus on the cover....something I do for myself because i have a thing about covers and how they should relate to the book contents.

A book I will definitely keep my eye out for.

Jennifer G. said...

Fantastic review! You've obviously put a lot of thought into this.

Emily St. John Mandel said...

Thanks very much for your very thoughtful review! I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

bermudaonion said...

This book sounds wonderful. I love Unbridled Books - did you know they've published a book by a Tech professor?

Aarti said...

GREAT review! I hadn't really wanted to read this book before seeing all the positive reviews it gets, and now I think I want to. It sounds like it explores a lot of important themes.

Wendy said...

Wonderful review -

I loved this book (here is my review) and was so impressed with Mandel's writing. I can't wait to read her next book which is being released in May.

Aths said...

Cat, you should read this book, it is definitely worth it. The small reservations are really small. :) I love analyzing covers too, esp when they are not so straight-forward.

Jennifer G, thank you. :)

Emily, thanks for stopping by. I was really elated to see your comment today morning. :)

Kathy, thanks for suggesting that book. I will have to read it!

Aarti, I sure hope you read it! It is pretty complex and gets you thinking!

Wendy, I loved your review! And yes, Mandel's writing is awesome! I read a review of The Singer's Gun yesterday and now I can't wait to read that one either!!

Alyce said...

I've seen a lot of good reviews of this book, and I really must move it up on my TBR. I very much enjoyed reading your review.

MarceJ said...

Wow this book sounds fantastic, I am so adding it to my list.

BTW I have an award for you. Thank you for being such a great commenter.

http://teawithmarce.blogspot.com/2010/03/humane-award-thank-you-jenn-reading.html

Kristen said...

I have seen this one around here and there but haven't really wanted to take the plunge. After your review, I think I'm willing though.

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Great review. New title for me :)

Aths said...

Alyce, thank you. :) I hope you choose to read it.

Marce, I hope you will enjoy this book as well. Thanks for the award! :)

Kristen, this is an intense read, so I hope you will read this. I was hesitant too initially, but I am glad it was worth it. :)

Juju, thanks! :)

Lisa said...

The whole reason for the kidnapping was quite the stunner for me as well. I could not understand why Christopher would become so obsessed to the point of abandoning his own daughter. But I really appreciated this book for its unique story.

Jennifer @ Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

Great review! I really enjoyed this book as well and reviewed it last month. I have Emily St. John Mandel's next book "The Singer's Gun" which is released in May. I'm very excited to read it soon.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I think that I enjoyed Christopher the most out of all the characters in this novel Mandel's writing is excellent but I felt this detachment throughout the story sine everyone was so detached as well. He was the only one who had a passion.

Aleksandra said...

Haven't read it, but great review!
I have an award for you: http://my-book-obsession.blogspot.com/2010/03/over-top-award.html

Book Dilettante said...

I haven't read the book but your very thorough review makes it sound very worthwhile.

Harvee
Book Dilettante

Dana said...

I've been considering reading this for a while, and your review definitely makes it sound like a great read. By the way, I always enjoy your "title demystified" and "cover demystified" sections in your reviews!

JoAnn said...

This book was already on my radar, but your review has me wanting to get to it right away!

Aths said...

Lisa, Christopher's obsession bugged me too. But I am guessing his disappointment with his wife had him putting more of himself into his investigation than into his own family. His initial obsession probably has a role to play in his wife's infidelity.

Jennifer, I am looking forward to reading The Singer's Gun as well.

Nicole, that is an interesting perspective, and I see what you mean. Now that you mention it, I did feel that only Christopher seemed 'normal' and passionate, while the other characters felt detached.

Aleksandra, thank you! :)

Harvee, I hope you chose to read it!

Dana, thank you. :) I enjoy analyzing the titles and covers as well. :)

JoAnn, I hope you chose to read it!

Care said...

I had some extremely minor quibbles with this book but overall was blown away by the author's story-telling skill. You are going to have to email me (I'll start it - be watching for it) Love your cover analysis - I was just thrilled that it actually related to a scene and didn't think much more about it. Good review.
Mine is here: http://wp.me/p7r47-I0

Aths said...

Care, Emily's story-telling skill is awesome! Got me really hooked! Minor issues are there, I felt them too. I'm with you, I loved that the cover had something to do with a scene - a minor scene that too, makes me believe that either the author had a hand, or the cover designer actually read the book!