If I were using affairs as a measuring-stick to classify books, Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal would be a savory one-night stand, which turns into a lingering dalliance that’s later hastily broken off. The novel is an enticing read; the narration is hypnotic, intelligent, and embracing. The suspense takes the form of a disappearance: Lilia, the girlfriend of Eli, announces she is going out to purchase a paper and never returns to their Brooklyn apartment. Although Eli is aware of Lilia’s itinerant past, her abrupt exit catches him off-guard. In her wake, Eli loses his footing, and after receiving mysterious letters from a woman named Michaela, beckoning him to come to Montreal to find Lilia, he leaves New York to do just that.
Sometimes when I’m reading a book, cracking the spine triggers a spell. The characters emerge fully formed when they are transported from their parallel world. In this case, it wasn’t the characters but the narration that struck me as vibrant and whole, providing guidance through Lilia’s disappearances, from Eli’s life and from her mother’s home long ago. The narrative voice is a siren’s call that recounts the stories of Eli and Lilia, and intersperses them with scenes from Lilia’s childhood on the road. Abducted by her father at the age of seven, Lilia came of age while barreling through the nexus of American highways, spending nights in nondescript hotels and taking dinners at local diners and off-the-interstate restaurants. She and her father made lengthier stays, but they never laid roost long enough for her to feel at home. Now that she’s older, she finds constancy uncomfortable.
The strength of the narration is also the novel’s Achilles’ heel. The distinct voice resonates with greater clarity and assurance than those of the characters, whose voices seem muted in comparison. Part of this derives from the difficulties of conveying absence. Lilia is pieced together in fragments: we enter in media res as Eli withers with the aftershock of her absence. She is his central obsession, and so we learn of Lilia through Eli, and yet she’s still once removed.
Of Lilia, Eli remarks, “you can skate over the surface of the world for your entire life, visiting, leaving, without ever falling through. But you can’t do that, it isn’t good enough. You have to be able to fall through.” He accuses Lilia of always removing herself to avoid emotional risks. This is also an apt critique of the novel and the way we come to know Eli, Lilia, and later, though to a lesser extent, Michaela. Lilia never becomes comfortable with staying, so she always goes. Eli is dominated by inertia in both his writing and his obsession for Lilia. Michaela is slightly more complicated – she is envious of Lilia and suffers from her parents’ abandonment. The layered story adds to our understanding, but the characters rarely stray from these roles. Mandel begins to delve into the greater issues of love, art, and life – there are urban dilettantes who talk creativity, truth, and beauty, but do little to actually to create; the isolated central characters long for connection but often fail miserably in their attempts. And yet these central ideas aren’t developed as carefully as the plot points of the story. Eli accuses Lilia of forever remaining on the surface, and yet she was the one person he knew who was actually living a life of truth and beauty. Was her detachment necessary to cultivate her artwork? Can one create a balance that allows for both?
Mandel leaves me wondering, and wanting, and yet this is as much a criticism as a remark on my involvement, the result of being drawn in. The careful depictions and graceful writing beckoned me to keep reading even when the characters lacked dynamism and the plot became slightly contrived. The voice was enough to string me along, to overlook the blemishes, at least for a time.