Monday, June 15, 2009

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

No one stays forever. On the morning of her disappearance Lilia woke early, and lay still for a moment in the bed. It was the last day of October.
[excerpt from Last Night in Montreal]

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
Unbridled, 2009 (ARC)
Fiction; 247 pgs

Last Night in Montreal is a rather melancholy tale set in the bitter cold of winter. But the author's writing has a softness to it, a gentleness that takes away the edge without losing any of the suspense or the strength of its message. Emily St. John Mandel has a way with words. Her writing is lyrical and yet simple.

On the outset, this may seem like Lilia's story. Her father kidnapped her when she was 7 years old, and, most of her life, she was on the run, traveling by car from town to town. She has no recollection of her life before her father whisked her away, much less of why her father took her in the first place. Even after her father decided to set down roots, Lilia was unable to stop moving from place to place. She would make friends, sometimes take on lovers, and always she would leave, most often without a word of warning.

It was like that when she left Eli behind in New York. Eli had no idea that the morning he sat working on his long-overdue thesis would be the day she would disappear from his life. She gave no warning. After she left, he felt lost. A postcard from a stranger in Montreal about Lilia spurred him into action. He would go to Montreal to make sure Lilia was okay.

All her life, Lilia had felt as if someone was watching her. And she was not wrong. When police failed to locate her, her mother hired a private investigator to track her down. The detective assigned the case became obsessed with finding Lilia to the detriment of his own family, including his daughter Michaela.

And while this is Lilia's story, it is also the story of Eli, Christopher and Michaela, all of whom are gliding through life, seeking something they aren't quite sure of. There is an underlying desperation within each of the characters, even the outwardly calm Lilia. Lilia has been chasing after her forgotten past while all the while running away from it. Eli feels stuck, living his life but not moving forward. He has been trying to write his thesis for years and continues to work in the same mindless job. Michaela longs for her absent father, jealous and angry of the time he has devoted to finding Lilia, a complete stranger. Michaela was on her own from an early age, her parents absent for much of her life. Christopher's life was spiraling out of control before he took on the search for Lilia and her father. Lilia was someone he could latch onto, an anchor of sorts. She was a distraction that kept him from facing his own problems. Each of these four characters were lost, their paths intersecting--the key, being Lilia.

I was just as mesmerized by Lilia as the other characters were in the book. There was a charm about her that drew people in. She was worldly and ever changing. She seemed to float through life, or as Lilia would say, "ice skate" through it. It is obvious the author took great care in creating the characters. They are vulnerable, and yet each carry within them a strength that keeps them going.

The city of Montreal made a fascinating character all her own. Not to mention it was the perfect setting for the story. Both Michaela and Eli are English speakers in a part of the town where French is the main language. Already feeling unsteady on their feet, they are even more isolated, more alone.

There was only one minor thread in the story that stretched my own suspension of disbelief almost to the breaking point, a part of Michaela's family's history. Eli's wonderment over it made it okay for me though. It is always interesting to me how that happens. If a character acknowledges the doubt I am feeling, however silly I am being, I find it easier to move past it and accept that which I doubted in the first place.

Told in third person, the novel flits back and forth between the past and present and between the characters. The changes are subtle, but I had no difficulty following each of the story threads. This is definitely a book that is more about the process, the journey that falls in between the beginning and the end. While certain aspects of the outcome may not be surprising, the way it comes together was completely unexpected. Last Night in Montreal was a pleasure to read. It was beautiful--poetic even--in writing and profound in scope.

Rating: * (Very Good +)

Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: ARC Challenge, New Authors Challenge, 2009 Pub Challenge, What's in a Name Challenge, & Themed Challenge

Be sure to check out this excerpt on the author's website and stop and take a look around the rest of her website. Many thanks to Caitlin with Unbridled Books for the opportunity to read this novel and participate in the blog tour.


  1. Every review I read of this one makes me want to read it more and more! Great review. :)

  2. Thank you so much for your wonderful review. I'm delighted that you liked my book.

  3. I'm happy to see that you liked it so much! All of the reviews that I've read of this one have been positive, which is great because I've got this one on hold at the library right now. (Of course I've got more books checked out than is humanly possible to read in the time allowed, but oh well!)

  4. This is the first review of this I've read all the way through, and the way you describe it really makes me want to get it. Adding to my wish list right now!

  5. It was so sweet of the author to come by! I've read reviews of this book several times recently, and am convinced I need to read it. I was also intrigued with a post (Serena's?) that the author did a guest post for, which showcased her writing space. Great review Wendy!

  6. Wendy, thanks for the great review, as always! :)

    I've been seeing several good reviews about this book so I'll have to check it out.

  7. Adding this one to the list! I like the idea of the basic set-up and following the lives of different characters who each have a connection to a central character. Also, I love that you mentioned Montreal as a character; cities that come alive in a novel add such a depth of interest!

  8. This sounds like just what I'm looking for so I'm adding it to my list. Thanks for the great review!

  9. I keep reading positive reviews of this book. I'm going to add it to my ever-growing wishlist.

  10. This sounds like an interesting book. The idea of being an English speaker in a non-English place would definitely serve to show a sense of isolation, esp English speaking, as we do have a sense of "English as the global language."

  11. Your review was one of the best I've read lately...loved it totally Wendy and it makes me want to visit Montreal and read this book while I'm there!!!

  12. It does sound like an interesting book. After visiting Montreal, it would also be fun revisiting it in the novel.

  13. OK, this one's officially on the wishlist now. Every review I've seen of it lately has intrigued me, but of course yours has settled the question. Thanks, Wendy!

  14. Great review. You've given me even more reason to make sure I don't miss this one.

  15. Wonderful review Wendy! You said it all so much better than I could.

  16. What a great review. I've been seeing this one all over the blogosphere. Must get this one .

  17. Well shaped review with just enough details to sell the book. Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts as usual.

  18. I loved this book too and like you I had difficulty following the threads. But otherwise I believe it was a very good book. Glad you enjoyed it too :)

  19. What a terrific review of an amazing book ... I really loved this one as well.

  20. Another great review! You know I'll be adding this to my radar. It sounds wonderful and wouldn't mind doing a bit of armchair travel to Montreal!

  21. With all of the glowing reviews, I sure want to read this one!

  22. Sounds like a very interesting character study! I love the concept.

  23. Carrie (B&M) - Thank you. I felt the same way! So many people seemed to like this one--I am glad I ended up enjoying it just as much.

    Emily - Thank you so much for stopping by. I don't imagine I will forget your book any time soon. It really made an impression on me.

    Alyce - I know how that goes! We never fun out of books to read, do we? That's a good though! :-) I hope you do enjoy this one when you get to it.

    Lenore - Thank you! I do hope you like it if you read it.

    Sandy - I was pleased to see the author comment stop in too. :-) I read Serena's post, although I haven't had a chance to comment on it yet. It's always interesting to see where the author works, isn't it? And how they work. Thanks, Sandy!

    Melody - Thank you. This book does seem to be getting a lot of praise, doesn't it? It really is worth reading.

    Jenclair - I really liked that set-up too, and think the author brought it together so well. In some ways, we were getting to know Lilia more through the eyes of the other characters just as much as we were through the flashback like scenes.

    I love it when the setting stands out and feels like a characters. I seem to be more aware of it in recent months than I used to be. I've never been to Montreal personally, but now I'm curious.

    Stacy - I hope you enjoy it if you read it!

  24. Kathy - Has your wish list reached the floor yet? LOL Mine has. I hope you will like it!

    Koolaidmom - It really was in interesting nuance to the story and I think helped bring those two characters together.

    Staci - Oh, thank you, Staci! That is so sweet of you to say. I'm ready to visit Montreal too!

    Carrie (Patience) - The novel does stand out for me. I am glad I read it.

    Florinda - I'm glad I could help. ;-) I'd really be interested in your take on this one, Florinda. So, I do hope you will read it.

    Beth - If you can, definitely do read this one!

    Dar - Thanks so much, Dar. You wrote a great review yourself. :-)

    Diane - I hope you will enjoy it if you do read it, Diane.

  25. Donna - I hope I didn't give too much away. Finding the balance can be difficult.

    Violet - There were a lot of nuances to this book, wasn't there? I am glad you enjoyed it too!

    Rachel - It was my pleasure. A good book like this deserves the praise.

    Wendy - I didn't do the book as much justice as you did, Wendy. I am glad you liked it so much too.

    Iliana - Just remember to bring your coat. It's awfully cold there in the winter.

    Teddy - I am glad it lived up to the expectations everyone was setting for it. :-)

    Kim - Yes, you're right. It is an interesting character study. I hadn't really thought of it that way, but that's exactly what it is, isn't it? With a little mystery mixed in. :-)

  26. What a interesting and great review, Wendy! Always look forward to reading all your reviews!

    Now I gotta go check this book out :)

  27. Great review and one book I will definitely have to put a check mark to. I don't think I would have ever read this without your insight. Glad to hear it was such a winner for you.

    I just realized we have many things in common. One I am almost as tall as you and two, I love Mists of Avalon...a book that I could read again and again. :)


  28. I'm very curious at to what part stretched suspension of disbelief. Can you email me and let me know? Your comment is not ringing any bells...

    I enjoyed this book, but as I mentioned in my review I didn't recognize Montreal! It felt very much like it was portrayed in a way that suited the plot of the book rather than being true to the actual city. But then I speak French!

  29. Julia - Thank you. I am so glad you enjoy visiting. :-) I hope you like the book if you try it.

    Donna (Wisteria) - Thank you!

    We short people must stick together. :-) Mists of Avalon is such a great book. It's definitely one of my all-time favorites.

    Avis - I haven't e-mailed you yet! I'm so terrible. I'll go do that right now.

    The author's view of Montreal wasn't so different than a couple of my friends who had visited years ago, and so perhaps it was easier for me to accept in the book as a result. It's good to know things aren't quite so rigid all over the city.

    Regardless, as a work of fiction sometimes authors take liberties with reality to fit their story. It's not something I put much thought into when I'm reading a book, especially one I am really enjoying. If it works for the story or I am none the wiser, it completely escapes my notice. If I'm interested enough, I will do my own research, like I did with this one. I can understand though why it might bother others, especially if the town is painted in any way negative. I actually didn't think of Montreal in a terrible light after reading the book--I was intrigued. But I also know that I am not every reader and some may well be put off by it, which is sad.

  30. This comment has been removed by the author.

  31. Thank you for emailing me your comments, Wendy! I'll get back to you soon.

    (Sorry, I posted before using the wrong profile.)


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