I first met Emily Mandel at a book party after I’d just moved to New York. This is entirely sensible, as everyone in New York is in publishing, and everyone in publishing is always at a book party; as such, everyone in New York is always at a book party.
Mandel was introduced to me at this party by a mutual friend who’d recently read her debut novel Last Night In Montreal. The novel was described to me as being “strangely beautiful” by said friend, and upon meeting the slight, quiet, reserved and polite Emily Mandel, she didn’t seem the person who would have penned a first novel of the striking emotional scope and quiet grandeur I’d eventually find in Last Night In Montreal. I didn’t think this at the time; I’d not yet read Last Night. All I recall thinking is “this Emily Mandel author person is nice but strange, I don’t even think she’s drinking. Who doesn’t drink at a book party?”
Eventually, though-and by “eventually” I mean in the past few months-Last Night In Montreal, published by small, growing with a firm handhold Unbridled Books, has become a sort of literary fever amongst people I know, people I respect, complete strangers, the New York Times.
I tend to avoid (and this is me admitting this here, this is like my AA, so be kind) hot of-the-minute works of fiction that I didn’t catch on their rise; falling under the hypnotic spell of, say, Michael Thomas’ Man Gone Down would have seemed like a less personal experience to me if it’d happened after the Times’ cover feature had run.
So I met Last Night In Montreal on skeptical terms, finally cracking the book’s spine for the first time after I asked Emily to be my August author guest at my bi-monthly “Just Working On My Novel” reading series (shameless plug!).
On a rainy, muggy afternoon, I found myself instantly hooked.
At its core, Last Night In Montreal is a story about place. Lilia Albert leaves-and has always left. It’s what she does, it’s who she is, and it’s all she’s ever known, though she’s relatively unsure as to why. A willing participant in a muddled, cloudy kidnapping by her birth father when she was very young, Albert’s adult life has seen her traveling the entirety of the U.S. entirely guided by her own whims.
When Lilia decides to settle in New York, she, through a chance café encounter (there are many chance encounters in Last Night In Montreal, making it, amongst many other things, a book that speaks volumes to a belief in the romance of fate), meets Eli, a Brooklynite working on his thesis of dead and dying languages. They burn instantly, quietly, strangely, cohabiting in Eli’s tiny apartment and with Lilia at times out late at night chasing rainstorms with her waterproof camera. In Eli’s life, he’s felt surrounded by people who’d rather critique art than make it, and with Lilia he finds beauty in both her person and her passion. At night, she slowly unravels, in story after story, the discordant fragments she can recall about her past.
Then one day she goes out for the paper and doesn’t come back.
Throughout the rest of Last Night In Montreal, Lilia’s life slowly pieces together in fits and starts, in a thread that pulls Eli to chase her to Montreal via a letter from the mysterious Michaela. The prose is taut but lush, filled to the brim with writing that way too often punched my throat, grabbed my heart and forced me to put the book on my lap simple in order to catch my breath.
It could be said (and was, by Publisher’s Weekly) that the characters in Last Night In Montreal, Lilia specifically, are nothing more than amalgams of neurosis. I dispute that. Young Adult author John Green has made a career writing great books with the same female archetype-the “crazybeautiful”-in each one, and Lilia is by far a more fully realized, flesh-and-bone character, that also happens to have a very raw emotional linchpin. This is proven in many incredible moments throughout the book, but my favorite is also the first that made me realize the utter visceral reaction I would have to Last Night In Montreal. When she decides New York is calling her, Lilia is living with a woman named Erica in Chicago. She tells Erica she’s leaving for NY:
“Do you have a place to stay?”
“I’ll find something.”
“There, you see?” Erica leaned back in her chair as if she’d just proved something. Her smile bordered on smug. “That’s courage,” she said, “whatever you want to call it.”
“You don’t understand.” Lilia found at that moment she had no patience for anything: for this city, this street, this relentlessly trendy split-level bar, the identically dressed waitress gliding between tables, this blue-haired girl across the table with the beer. The sadness of the waitress’s blue-green snake tattoo, circling forever on the same tired wrist…”It isn’t courage, Erica, it’s exactly the opposite. There’s nothing good about it. It’s exactly like running away from everything that matters, and I wish I could make you understand that.”
That scene, which continues, wrecked me-there, in about two pages, Mandel had encapsulated what, for me, was an incredibly personal feeling that I’ve been consumed with ever since I left Atlanta for New York-a feeling that only worsens when I’m “congratulated” on a “move” that feels at times more like I ran away from something than towards something. The Montreal-based Sub Pop band Handsome Furs’ song “Handsome Furs Hate This City”, with its lyrics of “oh, life is long…and hollow” and “baby we can get you anything you want anytime you want but you won’t know what it’s for” rang through my head as a soundtrack to this part, too, and I’ve since become a bit compelled to make a Handsome Furs-centric soundtrack to the book (though Mandel herself, over at Largehearted Boy, gives a great BookNotes soundtrack to Last Night).
The end of Last Night In Montreal I had to, unfortunately, read on the N train heading from Queens into Manhattan, due to not wanting to be a horrible human being and end up canceling on plans to, well, to read a book. I recommend, if this should happen to you too, that you choose book-nerd over good person, and keep yourself out of social interaction until you’ve turned the last page and let the entirety of the sweeping, emotional ending pass through you. Last Night In Montreal is a fully-realized piece of powerful literary fiction-as such, it demands your full attention, and unless you enjoy sobbing in public, you’d better give it what it asks for.
So, to everyone who I ignored by waiting this long to read Last Night, here’s your one for the year: you were right. So very, very right. Last Night In Montreal is the harbinger of massive works to come, I hope, because this book, tender and powerful though it is, only makes me want more.
Handsome Furs – Handsome Furs Hate This City