Book Club Reflection: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

10 Mar

Because it was chosen as the 2015-2016 Great Michigan Read, both of my book clubs have read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I think it’s a fun book to discuss and I really enjoyed hearing what this other group had to say about the story.

Though he dies in the opening paragraphs, Arthur seemed to be the central character of the book. Everything that happened revolved around him and many of the characters are brought together because of him. Most of the characters were a bit underdeveloped but for a dead man, Arthur makes a huge impression on the book and could be considered the main character. Jeevan is a well-defined character at the beginning of the book because of his interactions with Arthur and what happens the night Arthur dies. Unfortunately, he disappeared for a large chunk of the timeline and only makes a brief appearance at the end. The jumpy timeline was a little off-putting for some members of my group who would have preferred a chronological story.

Arthur wasn’t very likable. One reader suggested we didn’t like him because he was the only character we got to know. He’s described by his best friend as acting through life, even in his social life. He felt he was only ‘real’ when he was home, on the island he grew up on. He marries his first wife because they share that and she makes him feel ‘real.’ Toward the end of his life, he years for that reality and seems to be trying to share it with his son. Celebrity had been his dream for so long and he realized in the end that it was worthless and didn’t give him anything. Kind of like an iPhone after the collapse of civilization.

We had a long debate over the prophet. If you haven’t read the book, this paragraph will spoil the ending so skip on down to the next. We wondered when he became so radical. My school of thought is that his mother radicalized him before the collapse. She gave up celebrity and fame and moved to Jerusalem, the heart of three faiths. To me, this shows he might have had a very sheltered upbringing with Elizabeth and could point to him being inclined toward radicalization very young. Another argument is that he began developing his school of thought after the fall on his own. When he ran out of battery in his game, he picked up the Bible that his mother gave him and ended up preaching to a plane full of flu victims. He rationalized in his brain why he had survived and others had perished. The final thought was that Elizabeth had radicalized him after the fall by telling him he was special and chosen by God and that if she were still alive, she would be his strongest follower. I’m curious what any readers of this post think, please leave a comment below.

The book made us very aware of the things we take for granted. We’re not very many generations removed from people who lived with the technology of those after the collapse. However, we’ve lost the survival skills those ancestors 1000 years ago lived by. We know what conveniences we’d have to give up with a collapse which would be more emotionally trying than not knowing they ever existed. Though some people might claim they’d miss television or cars most, we thought running water, medication, and communication would be the hardest to live without.

The troop clung close to Shakespeare but we wondered if there was a reason. The message in the stories didn’t ring true with the life situations they were in so why was it so popular? I’m sure this is not the right forum for why Shakespeare has stayed relevant for 500 years so I’ll say only that there’s something about him that’s survived this long so it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think he would still be a favorite in twenty years. If they weren’t going to perform Shakespeare, we thought Greek tragedies would also be popular. And everyone loves a musical!

Our other long debate was about history. Should the survivors teach their children about the old world? Or is it better not to know? Those who remember are looking back on a horrible incident from their past, something that has scared them. They’ll likely view ‘before’ as a bad thing. However, having the knowledge of what has been discovered before has the potential to rocket the society through scientific discoveries faster than the original discovery took. Instead of learning how to make penicillin, we already know and only have to duplicate the process. Instead of learning the most efficient ways to make a product, we would already now. The society after the collapse had already advanced enough to have a class system where Clark didn’t have to work because he somehow achieved a class status where he didn’t have to do that. The symphony could survive without putting down roots. Everyone was headed back to what they’d had before.

Mandel will be in my area in May so I’ll be able to meet her and have my books signed then. I’m very excited to talk with her about how she started writing.

Until next time, write on.

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8 Responses to “Book Club Reflection: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel”

  1. siderealday March 14, 2016 at 7:56 PM #

    Huh. I hadn’t thought of it until now, but I think you’re right about Arthur being the main character even though I think the character who got the most screen time was Kirsten.

    As for choosing Shakespeare… I recall that getting discussed in story, too, even if only in people’s thoughts, and I thought they decided that it was the themes that spoke to them. For me, personally, I think Shakespeare’s themes will always be relevant. Depending on the play, you can find all sorts of themes and messages that have resonated with us through the years, plus the ability to ‘update’ settings or play with gender and other things keeps it ‘modern’. I mean, it’s the different ways that Shakespeare is performed that I think informs a lot about the era where you see it (for example how Shakespeare is performed today vs how his work was performed in the 90’s).
    Sorry about the Shakespeare rant… #TheaterGeek.

    Out of curiosity, what did you think about the Star Trek quote that keeps appearing throughout the story, “because survival is insufficient”?


    • Sam March 14, 2016 at 8:57 PM #

      I thought Star Trek was an odd choice, but I felt the quote was appropriate. They were trying to do more than survive.
      Thank you for the theatre rant. I understand what you mean about the freedom a director will play around with. Romeo + Juliet was the same words as I’d hear on stage, but the images were very different and modern than I’ll find on most stages. Thanks for commenting and happy reading!! Writers group tomorrow?


  2. Zezee March 15, 2016 at 10:48 PM #

    I agree about Arthur. I didn’t like him but I don’t think he’s a bad guy either. As for the prophet, I certainly agree that his mother strongly influenced his beliefs. Turning to religion was their way of coping with what happened and the “chosen” concept isn’t too far off from how the mother rationalized the world prior to the flu outbreak. It’s similar to how she reasoned it was okay to sleep with a married man.


    • Sam March 16, 2016 at 10:51 AM #

      Great insight on Elizabeth, I forgot about that! She was irrational enough to think being with Arthur made sense so it’s not had to see how she got to her religious extremism. Thanks for commenting!


  3. Ashley @ Sitting in the Stacks March 21, 2016 at 8:40 AM #

    There’s something called the Great Michigan Read?! Where have I been?! Station Eleven sounds intriguing. The cover alone would’ve attracted me, but your review helped.


    • Sam March 21, 2016 at 5:40 PM #

      I’m glad! Yes, the Great Michigan Read is a few years old now and has been a great program. Type it into Google and the Michigan Humanities Council can provide you with a ton more information. Happy reading!



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