If we were to lose everything—if our entire civilization were to collapse—what would you miss most? And what would you come to value most in the world left behind? These are the types of questions Mandel’s brilliant debut novel explores with acuteness and vivid poignancy.
Twenty years after a virulent flu has wiped out most of humanity, a troupe of traveling actors and musicians carries their art to the sparsely populated “towns” of upper Michigan. They’re willing to face hardships and danger because they hold fast to one paramount belief: “survival is insufficient”—a slogan from a long-ago Star Trek show painted on their horse-drawn pick-up trucks.
The novel weaves back and forth in time, before and after the pandemic, tracing the lives of several characters—an actress in the traveling troupe, a famous Hollywood star, his first wife, his long-time friend, a paramedic, and a menacing preacher. One of the pleasures in reading the novel is learning, ultimately, how their fates are mysteriously intertwined.
Using apocalypse as her lens, Mandel focuses on the hollowness of 21st-century life. Yes, it’s frightening to consider all that would be lost—the luxuries we take for granted, from washing machines, antibiotics, and airplanes to tokens as small as oranges and ballpoint pens.
But we also see what we’ve lost already: the distance we’ve built up between one another and our refusal to be fully present in the moment. Mandel shows up the falsities, hypocrisy, and shallowness in much of our culture.
Despite utter loss and ruin in the wake of an apocalypse, Station Eleven suggests there would still be beauty in what remains—flowers and vines and trees creeping back to the land, the abundance of wildlife, and the clarity of the night sky. Most important, Mandel’s survivors band together for the most authentic of human needs—survival and connection.
Station Eleven makes us consider what makes life worth living. And it raises intriguing questions about collective memory—as the novel’s population ages and those who remember the past die off, who will be left to remember? Who will have the knowledge to restore life as it was? Or this question: is that life worth restoring? Perhaps we start should anew?
A great read for book clubs!
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.