It took me a while to pick a copy of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It is about a flu outbreak that is so virulent and deadly that civilization collapses. Not exactly cheery reading in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally published in 2014, I expect that the concept at the center of the book felt extreme at its release. No more. Reading it left me grateful that humanity has thus far avoided being completely brought to its knees by a microbe.
The story is told primarily through the lives of The Traveling Symphony composed of actors and musicians who travel around Lakes Michigan and Huron performing Shakespeare and classical music. The reader gets a glimpse of how the plague started through the stories of those who later became part of The Traveling Symphony or encountered it. The writing is engaging, drawing you into the experiences and inner lives of the characters.
Slowly, bit by bit, you begin to learn about how some of the characters are connected. The hints at what might come later are part of what drew me to keep reading, as well as characters whose flaws felt real and relatable. In a world where civilization has collapsed, there are no angels. And yet there are a remarkable number of people who seek to make the world a better place. Through her characters the author show the absolute humanity of the people who inhabit this book, filled with both hope and deep disappointment.
If you are looking for an uplifting, feel good read, this book isn’t for you. But if you like stories of authentic people and a somewhat optimistic yet realistic look at the human condition, this book is a winner.