Before sitting down to write about Emily St. John Mandel's first novel, Last Night in Montreal, I wanted to do a pros and cons list of my own pre-conceived notions about fiction in general. My innate likes and dislikes, if you will. There are cliches in writing that I just can't stand -- easy things that authors fall back on because they are such a part of our collective unconscious, if you will, that even if one doesn't realize you're writing a trope, you're still writing a trope.
Circus performers. The idea of running away to the circus. And as prevalent and innovative, even successful as the modern day Cirque du Soleil might be in Canada and around the world, sentences like, 'they were part of a circus family when that was still something that could be done,' or the like, make me cringe, just a little (read: a lot). It's not that good books can't be written and/or good stories can't be told about circuses (case in point: Water for Elephants, which I have not read, but has been on bestseller lists for almost four years) or great drama created out of the idea of someone walking a tightrope (case in point: the excellent Colum McCann novel, Let the Great World Spin). Yet, in this novel, when the circus performer characters are dropped in, it feels forced and full of anguish -- like an imagination that's had too much caffeine and is trying to finish an all nighter -- something just isn't right and someone probably should have started cramming earlier.
Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Lilia, a distinct but also wispy and beautiful young woman, has trouble staying in one place. She was raised by her father who kidnapped her away from her mother one cold winter's evening and she hasn't stopped running since. Lilia's an interesting character -- she's bright, can speak several languages (taught to her by her father on the road) and has to work through her past by constantly moving on to the next location. She doesn't normally give her lovers any warning. She simply packs up her stuff, stashes it away, and then leaves when she feels she can't stay any longer. Her safety -- mentally, physically -- is at risk, and so she must go. Eli, her current Brooklyn-living boyfriend, can't accept that she's gone, so he goes on the road to try and find her. He doesn't necessarily want her to come back. No, he just wants an explanation, and to know that she's okay. So off Eli goes to Montreal. Why Montreal? Well, Eli receives a missive from someone named Michaela, who claims to know where Lilia is...
In tandem with the current-day storyline that follows Lilia, Elia and Michaela, the novel drifts back in time via different characters to fill out the novel. The most engaging parts of the book take place on the road with Lilia and her father -- there's a wonderful dynamic between the two, and even if I do find Lilia kind of twee for my liking, I can see how kidnapping her both saved and damaged her at the same time. But here's also where the book goes off the rails a little bit, there's a private detective, Christopher (paid by whom, who knows? It's never explained.) who becomes obsessed by the case (he's Michaela's father; this is the circus stock family). These two families are now intertwined, and their complex relationship forms the crux of the novel.
There's no doubt that St. John Mandel is a terrific writer. She has a gift for description and the book hums along -- it's just not, from my point of view, entirely believable. There's a 'movie of the week' element to it that I just couldn't shake and I will hold any "damaged" girls up to Baby in Lullabies for Little Criminals and always find them wanting. And the circus performers. Of the entire novel, I appreciated the ending, but the penultimate scenes and resulting action, well, that also falls into the "tired" category -- to spell it out would be to completely spoil the novel, so I'm not going to do that here, as per usual. On the whole, it's a terrifically uneven first novel, but it's also just that -- a first novel, and I do actually look forward to reading more from St. John Mandel in the future.
WHAT'S UP NEXT: The last of my library books for a while -- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Then it's back to the shelves for sure -- I am very behind in my challenge, and by alphabetized books are just mocking me, mocking me!