Last Night in Montreal, Emily St. John Mandel’s debut novel, is a poetic, profoundly moving, and intricately structured meditation on the desire for human connection in its many forms. With characters who are set adrift, the novel reveals co-mingling of compassion and desire where love remains unfulfilled and is often thwarted.
Although most of the action unfolds on the cold, wintry streets of Montreal, the core of the story takes place amid the shimmering, heat-soaked deserts of the American Southwest
and of teenage Lilia who, when she was only eight years old, was kidnapped by her father, Peter, from her home just outside of Montreal.
Lilia can remember little of that fateful night. Christopher, the private detective, hired by Lilia’s mother to find her, is just as puzzled at the strange events that took place when Peter decided to take his daughter from a childhood of false names and lost memories. Christopher, for reasons of his own, has spent much of his professional life obsessed with this enigmatic and frustrating girl who was spirited away from her mother and half-brother one icy night for no apparent reason.
Mandel plays with time and place, first introducing us to Lilia while she lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend, Eli. Desperate for escape, she walks out on Eli
with no explanation, other than taking her purse and her suitcase from under the bed. For Eli, all that remains of his strange and emotionally detached girlfriend is a photograph from her childhood, taken on her twelfth birthday.
Eli’s existence is suddenly broken neatly into two parts. A researcher of small, dead languages on the edge of distinction, he embarks on a journey to Montreal to find his muse with one only clue in his hands: a postcard from the
city with no return address and the message: “She’s here, Come to Club Electrolyte. Come soon, Michaela.”
Adding layer upon layer of visually stunning imagery to the lives of Eli, Lilia, Peter, and even Christopher, Mandel introduces us to her most conflicted character, the stunning Michaela. An exotic dancer who relies on pills for escape and has no permanent address, only Michaela has read all the notes on Lilia’s case from her father, Christopher. But even though Michaela takes a liking to Eli, she refuses to tell him where Lilia is.
As dense as the memories that shroud Lilia’s fractured childhood, what ensues is a veritable stew of misplaced communication. Eli finds himself caught in a struggle to find Lilia as Michaela resorts to desperate measures and Lilia is driven by the need to escape. Driven by the interior lives of all the characters, Last Night in Montreal is a tale of longing and of love, the shadows, light, and riptides of life echoing throughout in this beautiful elegiac story.