Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal is a book I was prepared to love. The novel came to me under the best of circumstances: remembered while perusing the excellently stocked shelves of Los Angeles’s landmark bookstore Skylight Books on vacation earlier this month. I was hooked as I started reading on the drive back to Phoenix, but unfortunately, as the plot wore on and I transitioned out of vacation mode, the novel steadily lost its appeal. An interesting premise and well-executed mystery kept me on until the end, but ultimately, St. John Mandel’s debut effort is plagued by a lack of character development and the overuse of clichés about youth and growing up.
Last Night in Montreal opens with Eli, a frustrated graduate student in his late twenties working on an interminable thesis on dead and dying languages. Without warning, Eli’s capricious girlfriend, Lilia, leaves him and he is left to get over the loss in the midst of his increasingly dissatisfying life. After an illuminating conversation with his mother on the arrested state of his life and studies, Eli decides to take action and travel north from Brooklyn to Montreal, where he has been told Lilia now resides. What follows is the story of the enigmatic Lilia and the cast of characters whose lives become intertwined to the point of obsession with her own.
Undoubtedly the best part of this novel is the steadily revealed mystery of Lilia’s youth. There are many questions about her peculiar past and St. John Mandel answers them expertly over the course of the last three-quarters of the novel. As the mystery unfolds, the author also explores the dynamic theme of “leaving”. For Lilia, leaving is a way of life. Because she has no memory of ever staying in one place, she is unable to contend with the idea of doing so as an adult. Eli, however, believes leaving to be a demonstration of one’s worldliness and maturity. In fact, the individuals that Eli admires most are his traveling missionary brother Zed and the wayfaring Lilia. Though Lilia and Eli have opposing views on the concept of leaving, contending with it for both of them is a large part of growing up.
While I found the mystery of Last Night in Montreal to be engaging, unfortunately, certain flaws in the novel marred my overall opinion of it. St. John Mandel’s characters are young and quirky, but they are also flat. Each character enters the novel with a host of flaws and leaves it resolving very few of them. St. John Mandel also makes heavy use of certain clichés about youth that caused me to roll my eyes after more than a few passages. The recurring setting of the coffeehouse and the appearance of characters like the Dostoevsky-reading bouncer, came off as indulgent and reminded me that this is indeed the author’s first novel.
While there is some good writing to be found in Last Night in Montreal, overall, I found the novel disappointing. I will be interested, however, to hear others’ opinions on this new writer.