Friday, March 20, 2009

Exquisite Meals, Exquisite Books

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I found myself looking for a nice place to have dinner. I wanted to sit down and enjoy a meal that was brought to my table rather than having to go to the food and feel I was eating from a trough (i.e. the Las Vegas buffet). Rather than an easy decision, this turned out to be a saga I shared with my followers on Twitter.

One upscale steakhouse turned me away for dress code violations. Apparently, you are not allowed to eat really good steak if you are wearing jeans (they were nice jeans! No holes or frayed edges). Another two restaurants turned me away because I was dining alone and they were too busy to set a table for just one person (is my money worth less because I am eating alone?). I refused to eat at another because their salads cost $30 (when in the hell did a salad start costing $30, I asked).

Ultimately, I ended up finding a table at Wolfgang Puck's Spago. They had no problem with my clothes, or the fact I was eating alone. It was some of the best service I've ever had at a restaurant anywhere in my life (my glass was never empty for more than thirty seconds). The food was amazing. It was the first time in my life that a steak (Blue Cheese Encrusted Prime Filet Mingon) actually made my eyes roll backwards. Yeah it was that good!

Now, this may seem a strange way to introduce a book, but let me finish.

I recently read a book that invited me in and sat me down at a amazing story. I often read from the buffet of the popular and trendy, so this book was like having an exquisite meal being brought to my table at Spago. I read it slowly, savoring the words, enjoying the story, examining the characters one by one. It wasn't a huge book, but I left feeling far more satisfied than if I had read ten mediocre books.

"Last Night in Montreal" by Emily St. John Mandel is all at once a mystery, a love story, a book about family, about connections and disconnections. It is a recipe for a story that comes together perfectly for a literary meal.

Lilia, whose story we follow throughout the book, is a young woman who can't stay in once place. Ever since being kidnapped by her father, away from her mother, she has been on the move from one place to another, from town to town, and city to city. Being on the move has become so ingrained in her life that she tells her lover Eli, whom we meet at the first of the book, that she dosen't "know how to stay." And then she leaves him.

The question that haunts the reader, and Eli, throughout the book is, "why did her father take her in the first place and send her into this vagabond existence?" And so, we follow Eli to Montreal, where he goes to look for Lilia after receiving a mysterious letter indicating that is where she went after leaving him. We learn about Lilia from several different characters in the book, all of whom her life has affected in on way or another; Christopher, a detective who was hired to find Lilia but became obsessed with her; Michaela, Christopher's daughter, a young woman who lost both her father and mother to Lilia; and from Lilia herself.

What I loved most about this book was the language that Mandel used to tell Lilia's story. It left you both empty and full, warm and cold, lonely, yet surrounded by empathetic characters. By the time I reached the end of the story I felt both happy and sad for Lilia, for Eli, for Micheala, and for Christopher. I wanted for all of them to have found more but knew the book would have been less fulfilling if they had.

In the end, "Last Night in Montreal" was like that Raspberry Chocolate Chip Souffle that ended my dinner at Spago- a perfect ending that was both bitter and sweet and left me hoping that one day I would be able to come back once again and enjoy another meal from this author.

"Last Night in Montreal" by Emily St. John Mandel will be available in bookstores in June 2009 and is now available for pre-orders.

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