Emily St. John Mandel dares the readers of Last Night in Montreal early on to drop her book that starts with so many recent literary clichés. But she keeps us dangling along to figure out why a young women can’t ever stay in one place with an unflinching examination of the stereotypical protagonist in most serious novels of late. Lilia at first runs into the story with a huge sign above her head reading stock Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is everything the sensitive, brooding Eli needs to jumpstart his crippling passive existence as a someday artist until we learn that this isn’t his journey; it’s hers. “She began to tell him a story in bed that night, a long story about deserts and aliases and driving away, motel pay phones and a blue Ford Valiant in the mountains” (25).
As alluring as the narrator, through Eli’s eyes, describes Lilia, “mind like a switchblade” (21), “four or five unevenly spaced freckles on her nose, like Lolita” (22), “sublimely abnormal” (24), I didn’t feel compelled to care for her until Mandel slowly unfolded Lilia’s conflict. It’s not just that she’s a runner, escaping the eyes of a private detective and bred for a nomadic existence, Lilia is a woman chasing after the missing part of her story. This furious pace leaves a trail of lovers/admirers behind as Michaela points out to Eli’s request to find Lilia, “‘You’d be amazed at how many people have said that in her lifetime”’ (227). And as heartless or destructive as this may seem she always remained up front with those drawn into her sphere of influence and is really the mark of someone driven by more than a desire to not be alone as Eli and Michaela share. That doesn’t necessarily create a character devoid of attachment. Lilia does want to settle down and be a part of life instead of passing through it. The attempted relationships on her trail to and in New York are evidence of that, but more so are the photographs she takes. “The pictures gave her a sense of continuity” (152). These moments of her life are important signposts along the way towards reaching that last destination on the Tiber River where “three lists fall from her hands: a list of names, ten pages, beginning and ending with Lilia; a list of places, nine pages, beginning and ending with the province of Quebec; a shorter list of words, of phrases, all Eli’s” (243).
Lilia had to gather up the setting and exposition that is the starting point of her map before she could trace out a course to the resolution she wanted to write.
I saw Lilia as Mandel wanted me to see her: someone “not missing,” someone who did “not want to be found,” someone who wished “to remain vanishing” (66) until the very end. That’s when the appealing but cliched “half mermaid, half girl” (33) became a compelling character. Something lacking in certain of my modern readings.