station eleven book club

Let’s Discuss: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Let’s Discuss: Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on September 9th 2014
Source: Library
Pages: 352
Buy from IndieBound


Every now and then I’ll read a book that is so widely read (and loved—it was the Book Blogger Top Picks winner for Adult Fiction) that throwing another review into space feels a little silly. Even though it just came out three months ago, by the time I picked up Station Eleven I wanted to talk about it more than just sharing my veiled, spoiler-free opinion. So, let’s give it a go!

I’m not big on the whole, “Which item would you put in the Museum of Civilization?” type question. I’m more interested in sharing and even politely debating opinions. Though Station Eleven offers endless discussion topics, here are a few to get us started:

  • How did you feel about the way the novel described the fall of society? Was it believable? Did you feel you were given enough or too much information?
  • Did you find the shifts between pre and post-apocalypse to be an effective storytelling technique?
  • Jeevan stands out as a central character who ends up disconnected from the overall narrative. Why do you think Mandel chose to devote so much space to him?
  • Were you satisfied with the end? Was everything too neat or untidy for you?
  • Why do you think Station Eleven has been so successful when other novels in the same vein have struggled to catch on with literary fiction readers?

From here on out, the discussion will get spoilery (including the comments), so fair warning!


My Thoughts

  • I constantly struggle with backstories and world building in post-apocalyptic novels. 99% of the time it’s the reason I can’t get behind a book, usually because I find the fall isn’t believable or hasn’t been explained in a satisfying way. I think some authors feel they need to come up with a series of complicated events that lead to a collapse, but the simplicity of the super flu in Station Eleven just worked for me and I found it totally plausible.
  • I was a little worried that I wouldn’t want to return to pre-apocalypse after being introduced to the characters of the Traveling Symphony, but I found that my first reading spurt (I ended up reading close to 200 pages in one sitting!) came at the start of Arthur’s flashback. I loved the way Mandel threaded time together and used the jumps to reveal connections in the plot.
  • Though I had predicted most of the character connections early on, I thought for sure Mandel would surprise us somehow and further knit Jeevan into Kirsten’s story at the end, especially after catching us up with his life in the south. I had a library copy, so I can’t go back and peek at that section, but I feel like re-reading it might reveal a bit more that I might have overlooked.
  • I was quite happy with the end. It felt hopeful without being too tidy.
  • For me, the key to Station Eleven was that it didn’t focus on the downfall of society or create a complicated set of rules and regulations in a post-apocalyptic future. Instead, it centered on the lives of the characters, which came together to move the plot forward. The setting became a backdrop rather than a device that held the novel together.

Feel free to talk about some, none or all of these topics—they were just a few things that came to mind for me! 


Need more recommendations?
  • I’m going to focus on your first question – I am not normally a fan of post-apocalytic or fantasy type books..mainly because I’m a bit of a realist. Because the flu epidemic was so believable…and somewhat relevant given the recent Ebola outbreak (obviously not nearly as extreme) I bought into the story. Especially that first chapter! I did actually want a little more information about what happened in larger cities between the initial outbreak and the traveling state where things ended up. Also – I thought the Traveling Symphony thing (couldn’t they just have been a group of friends traveling together?) was really cheesy at first (maybe also b/c I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan), but once Kirsten started talking about “survival is insufficient”, it took no a whole new meaning for me. Anyway – this book was a big surprise for me!

    • I was surprised, too, especially since I read it after so much hype. I was worried that I would let it get to me and wouldn’t enjoy it quite as much, but it was such a great book.

  • Wesley

    Yes, the end was hopeful but not overly wrapped up and tied together. I thought it was really done well.

    I don’t know how to say it really eloquently but I liked how you don’t read about all of the horror when it first starts. Like when you know there’s people dying all over the place and it’s horrible and terrifying but you don’t really get the play by play of that part as much and I kind of appreciated that. Though the quarantined airplane was totally freaking me out.

    I love apocalyptic books and I think this might be top 3 I’ve ever read. When it was finished I was just so happy that I had read it.

    • I totally get what you mean by not needing the play by play of the problems in the beginning…and I didn’t even realize I didn’t miss it until we saw a bit of it with Jeevan leaving his brother. I think that small bit was a good transition, but it was nice to be without all of that for a change.

  • As the Crowe Flies

    The reason this book worked so well for me, personally, was that it walked that balance between bleak and hopeful. I loved The Road, for example, but it was such a dark and bleak book. Mandel approached those pits but skirted them. She’s also a very good writer, and any time you have great writing with a novel that’s plot-driven, you’re going to have something successful, I think.

    From a slightly different perspective…Let me put on my Book Industry Hat. There. Okay, what you’ve got with Station Eleven is that Emily Mandel had already been a darling of independent booksellers since her first book, Last Night In Montreal. My store, for example, chose that book for our signed First Editions Club. Other big-mouthed booksellers from the northeast, like Michele Filgate and Emily Russo Murtagh, have been touting Mandel’s work from Day One. It helped that she was as lovely in person as her author photos indicate, so that her personality ALSO engendered goodwill among Book People.

    Our Random House sales reps are particularly good about asking their indie bookseller clients what authors they *should* be reading when they’re not reading books from their own list. LOTS of us told them that they should be reading Emily Mandel. So word started growing among RH reps about this author from a tiny but very well respected publishing house. And then social media happened, as it often does.

    THEN the thing happened that so many of us were waiting for: Emily sold her book to a large publishing house. One that had a significant marketing budget that would finally put her book in the hands of readers who don’t seek out indie bookstores or indie publishers for their usual reads. Welcome to our little Emily Mandel bandwagon, y’all!

    • I’m so glad you put your Book Industry Hat on! This was really interesting…and now I remember tons of word of mouth from months ago (even before BEA) that I had totally forgotten about.

  • The reason I enjoyed it so much was because of the characters and their development. I was hesitant to pick this one up and have to learn a whole slew of new rules and regulations, like many post-apocalyptic novels, yet this story just unfolded naturally. It wasn’t over the top, it was basic survival and I believed it. The jumping back and forth also caused me to pause but again it was executed in a way that really set the stage for these characters and where they came from, who they were connected to and just reflect on what many of them lost. Like you, I thought Jeevan was removed from the rest of the story after he was so key at the beginning. I’m not sure why and will have to go back and re-read as well. He was my favorite.

    • It felt very natural/not over the top to me, too…which is odd, considering the setting. I think Mandel just did a great with not making anything feel forced and that really shone through.

  • I really loved this book. I think she provided just the right amount of information about life after the collapse. She really made it feel real and allowed the setting to come alive in my mind.

    I liked the shifts in narrative — but I usually tend to like stories told this way.

    I loved Jeevan’s character, but I was surprised he didn’t tie in with the other characters more as the story progressed. However, I though he was a great device to show what the collapse was like for an adult. He balanced out Kirsten really well. She doesn’t remember the first year after the flu outbreak, so we learn about it from him. And perhaps it would have been TOO tidy and forced if his life connected with the other characters’ more than it already did.

    I was satisfied with the end. Like you said, it felt hopeful but without being too neat and tidy. Perhaps a settlement has made a small stride forward, but it’s going to be a long hard road to rebuild civilization as it once was.

    • That’s a great point about Jeevan balancing Kirsten, even though we don’t really see what her experience was like since she doesn’t remember. It was interesting to be able to see everything from his point of view.

  • Love your questions! And, I pretty much agree with all your thoughts, so I won’t try to repeat everything in my own words, but I will add my 2 cents worth.
    I think what I liked about this book, besides the obvious writing style, etc., is that it was not all gloom and violence. A lot of apocalyptic novels show some pretty scary outcomes. This one did have some of that, because that’s realistic, but it also showed how adaptable we are. That humans would be okay, we’d figure things out and start over again with what we have and what we know. I liked that it didn’t tie up nicely; it’s more realistic that way, and leaves more to the imagination.
    As for Jeevan, I think he was there to fill in some of the gaps that we don’t get to see from the other characters. I loved his part, even though he seemed to be the most loosely connected. His story gave us a glimpse of what other settlements might look like. Since the settlements are isolated from each other, it’s interesting to see the similarities and differences between them. Theirs had more families with children being raised in the new world, which was interesting to see.

    • Ah, yes – I love that thought about Jeevan! And the discussion around whether or not to teach children about the “old world” was such an interesting one! I think I sat and pondered that for a few minutes, too.

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  • I thought the descriptions of the collapse of civilization worked really well. You’re right to say that they were more in service of the characters than an end in themselves — I expect I’d have wanted to know more, had that not been the case. As it was, I was content with what Mandel gave us. One of the things that really slammed into me was when she tells us that Miranda died. Of course I knew Miranda must have died, but it was such a good reminder that, no, really, most of the people on earth were killed by this thing.

    • I loved everything about the way she wrote her death, too. I’m a fan of good, dark fiction, but I just loved reading a post-apocalyptic book where every scene wasn’t violent…it was a great change of pace.

  • There was something so satisfying about reading this novel, and it’s been hard for me to pinpoint exactly why. Because I read some of the more critical reviews and think, yeah, they’re right, that’s a good point… yet those things didn’t detract from the enjoyment for me, at all. I’m thinking it boils down to what Catherine mentioned in her review back in September: “Where Mandel excels is in the little things that might not occur to anyone thinking about the apocalypse. . .Station Eleven is powerful because of its realism.”

    • That’s so true…for some reason, with this book, I wasn’t bothered by some of the impossibilities. Everything just clicked and worked and felt so real.

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  • Just returned from our book club’s discussion of Station Eleven. One thing that came up was the lack of books. Pat Frank wrote a great book, Alas Babylon, in the 60’s. A post nuclear war setting. Within the community that arose, the library was a very busy place. It seemed a weak area in Station Eleven that the only reference to books were the very central comic books and the Bible. Perhaps she didn’t want to distract from the importance of those two by referencing general book use? Wondering if anyone else has thought on this.

  • DarylT

    Now to some geek stuff. Would bullets really be in short supply? There are estimated to be 280 million guns in private hands in the USA, plus all the military and shop stock piles, seems like if 99% of everybody was gone, there would be more than enough left for several lifetimes, apparently the US military is still using ammunition manufactured in WW2.

    In a similar vein I’d have thought you could keep some vehicles running without much trouble, you can run a diesel on vegetable oil for example. Things like laptops and iPads ought to still be around, you could rig up a solar array at the very least to recharge them. Guess no one wants to spoil their post apocalyptic vision with the inhabitants still listening to their MP3s. : )

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