Monday, September 21, 2009

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

Last Night in Montreal, by Emily St. John Mandel

I owe a bunch of people a bunch of thanks for introducing me to this book. I'm not sure exactly who, because this has been on blogs everywhere, but ... oh wow. This is, quite simply, a spectacular debut novel by 30 year old Emily St. John Mandel.

Last Night in Montreal is the story of Lilia, whose father has been a fleeting presence in her life - until she is 7. It is then that he abducts her and the once distant father and daughter become, by necessity, inseparable. For years, the two remain on the run - eating in diners, sleeping in motels, changing names and stories as quickly as they change lanes on the country's highways.
Lilia (love that name!) doesn't know exactly why she was abducted, just that it had something to do with her mother and an incident on the evening of Lilia's disappearance. What Lilia does know is that she doesn't want to be found ... and that she doesn't know what it means to stay in one place.

This becomes painfully clear when Lilia leaves her boyfriend Eli. Heartbroken, he pursues her from New York (where the couple were living for several months) to Montreal.

Last Night in Montreal is told from various point of views - Eli's, Lilia's, and that of Christopher Grayson, a private investigator literally on the trail of Lilia and her father. A former circus performer with a failed marriage who gradually neglects his daughter Michaela (who is the same age as Lilia), Christopher becomes obsessed with Lilia's case, spending years keeping them just within his grasp. Meanwhile, Michaela - with her father's circus genes in her blood - perfects the art of tightrope walking, both literally (she has a penchant and skill for walking an actual tightrope across alleyways) and figuratively, mentally unbalanced and walking precariously on the edge of life.

Emily St. John Mandel weaves a smooth, original plot that has the reader following her characters' every move across the pages. How and why these two families' lives intersect is absolutely fascinating, and flawlessly presented with finesse that surpasses the abilities of many an author dominating bestseller lists.

Last Night in Montreal is also layered with many compelling themes, particularly the issue of the father-daughter relationship. In one case (Lilia's), there is the once distant father that becomes his daughter's only ally in life; in Christopher and Michaela's, there's the once close father who disappears for years while trying (supposedly) to solve a disappearance.

Although some might find the multiple points of view and the switch in time confusing, I didn't (and believe me, I would be the first to say so as that usually drives me nuts. Not so this time.) The chapters are short ones, sometimes only a few paragraphs, which works very well; it keeps the reader engaged and turning the pages. (It's pretty easy to justify staying up late to read "just a few more chapters" when they are only a couple pages long - not to mention the superb sense of accomplishment of plowing through multiple chapters in one setting.)

The storylines are different (but similar in some respects), but that didn't stop Last Night in Montreal from reminding me of one of my favorite movies, the 1988 film "Running on Empty" starring Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, and the late River Phoenix.

It's been 20 years since I saw "Running on Empty" for the first time, but to this day I cannot hear the first line of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" without thinking of the last scene of this movie. (Sing it with me, won't you? Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone. Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you ... ) If Last Night in Montreal ever becomes a movie (which could actually work) that should be on the soundtrack.

In the meantime, Last Night in Montreal stands as a truly impressive debut by an author well worth watching in the future.

Author Emily St. John Mandel's website is here. Also, check out what some other bloggers had to say. (If I missed your review, let me know!)

Bookfoolery and Babble
Caribou's Mom
Cindy's Love of Books
Fizzy Thoughts
I'm Booking It
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Peeking Between the Pages
She Is Too Fond of Books


Anonymous said...

As you know (since you pointed to my review) I really liked this book. I'm glad you did too!

Anonymous said...

As you know (since you pointed to my review) I really liked this book. I'm glad you did too!

Belle said...

What a great review! I have this on my list, and now I think when I read it, I'll keep hearing James Taylor's Fire and Rain in my head!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Isn't LAST NIGHT IN MONTREAL wonderful?!? I was stymied as to how to review it ... you really hit the key points without giving too much plot. I wanted to write something about the symbolism (you know, like the w.i.n.g.s. that kept showing up ... ) :)