Everyone has been talking about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. That book got so much amazing blog coverage over the last few months, I wondered if it was really that good or if everyone was buying into the hype. (I find myself now worrying about this same thing with The Girl on the Train. Has the hive mind taken over?) not that it mattered—because of the TBR Double Dog Dare, I can only read from my stacks, and I don’t have a copy of Station Eleven. (Er, make that didn’t have a copy…I caved and bought it, but I havent’ read it!) I do, however, have a copy of Mandel’s The Lola Quartet that I bought several years ago and hadn’t read yet, so I decided to find out for myself what kind of author Mandel is.
Gavin Sasaki is a 28-year-old journalist living in New York City. He’s broken up with his girlfriend, the newspaper where he works is going digital and laying people off, the shower in his apartment has an ever-worsening leak, and he’s generally come to feel…well, to feel a sort of nothingness. He takes an assignment in Florida, not far from his hometown of Sanderson, covering exotic and dangerous animals that people have released into the wild that threaten the human population. While he’s there, he meets his sister, Eilo, for lunch. Eilo is a real-estate broker who deals in foreclosures. She shows him a picture of a ten-year-old little girl who looks just like Eilo when she was the same age. She also tells him that the girl has sinced vanished, that the lady left the house and took the girl with her and Eilo does not know where they’ve gone.
And so begins the story of The Lola Quartet, which was the name of the jazz band Gavin belonged to in high school, the band that was playing the very last time he saw his girlfriend, Anna Montgomery, on the night of graduation. After Gavin breaches the trust of his editor at the paper, he loses his job. He drifts aimlessly around New York and then finally decides to accept an offer to stay with Eilo in Florida while he gets back on his feet. In Florida, he becomes obsessed with the idea of finding out what has happened to Anna and the little girl in the photograph, so he decides to track down the other members of the Lola Quartet—one of whom is Anna’s half-sister—to understand what happened.
Although the story primarily feels like Gavin’s, it moves between past and present (1999 and 2009) and characters (the Lola Quartet members Daniel, Jack, and Sasha, and also Anna herself, who was not a member). In the present day, Daniel, the bassist, is a cop. In the past, unbeknownst to Gavin, he was a rival for Anna’s attention and affection. Jack, the pianist, is now a drug addict, the result of a nervous breakdown in college. And Sasha, once a talented drummer and swimmer, who suffers from a serious gambling problem and now works the nightshift at a diner. Gavin visits each of them in turn, and as we hear the stories we begin to piece things together along with Gavin. The missing information is filled in with Anna’s narrative, how she got from graduation night to the hiding place where she is now.
The Lola Quartet isn’t exactly a mystery, but it has a noir feel. All of the characters seem wise and weary beyond their years, which feels appropriate to the tone of the book. All of them remember that graduation night, where the Lola Quartet played its last performance. They were set up in the back of a truck, playing late into the night. All of them remember the small hours of the morning, a singer crooning “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” (translated loosely, this means “you are beautiful to me.” You can listen to a popular version of the song by The Andrews Sisters here.) and the lyrics (“You’re really swell, I have to admit you/ Deserve expressions that really fit you/ And so I’ve racked my brain hoping to explain/ All the things that you do to me…”) fit all the longing these characters feel, sometimes for each other, sometimes for music itself, or for cards, or just for some other life. Anna, who is the only person who is not a member of the quartet, and who prefers electronic music (in particular, New Order) to anything else, seems also to be the one character who is most pragmatic, who spends the least time longing and more time doing. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that works quite well.
In some ways, this novel feels infused with music, especially in Jack’s sections, as he’s the only one of the Lola Quartet who decides to pursue music after high school. He goes to college in South Carolina and then meets his roommate, a jazz guitarist who aspires to be greater than Django Reinhardt. At the midpoint of his freshman year, an event occurs that leads him to feel that he’s lost the music, that he doesn’t have what it takes to play piano or maybe even live in the wider world, and begins his decline. The way the story moves amongst characters, from past to present—it feels like a jazz arrangement. I almost want to say, if you enjoy jazz, then the rhythm of The Lola Quartet should please you. You shouldn’t mind the lack of straightforward narrative drive, and instead you’ll enjoy the improvisations, the parts that seem to wander away but then lop full circle to make the narrative tighter than before.
Stylistically, this novel reminded me a lot of The Goldfinch, which I loved. That isn’t to say The Lola Quartet is quite as good, though, and it does have some issues. The only one that really stood out for me is that near the end, a few characters respond to a major event in a way that seems unlikely. I was happy that happened closer to the end because at that point I was ready to declare it a triumph. If I were going to give stars, those reactions would take one away. But overall, I fully enjoyed it. Mandel is a terrific writer, and now I see what all the fuss is about. Now if April 1 would just get here, so I can finally read Station Eleven!