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book review
  • Title: The Glass Hotel
  • Author: Emily St. John Mandel
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Pages: 320
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The Glass HotelHandout/HarperCollins/Courtesy of manufacturer

Launching a book during a pandemic is challenging, but unlike many authors, Emily St. John Mandel has an advantage: Her previous book, Station Eleven (2014), a cross-border bestseller, was set in the aftermath of a viral pandemic – a topic with some resonance these days. An HBO series based on the novel was slated to air this year. It’s unclear whether that will still happen, but I think we can all agree that a pandemic-themed series being delayed by a pandemic is a level of meta-ness none of us needs right now.

Set in the decades on either side of the mid-aughts, The Glass Hotel strongly resembles its predecessor in mood and approach, flitting among a group of interlinked, but geographically and at times chronologically disparate characters. Their point of connection is Jonathan Alkaitis, a Bernie Madoff-like financier who lands in prison after his multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme is finally exposed, but not before lives are affected, and, in some cases, ruined.

One of those lives belongs to Vincent, Alkaitis’s young Canadian trophy wife. During the good times, Vincent bounces between opulent display cases: a sprawling mansion in the Connecticut suburbs and a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. That this gilded existence is not to last is powerfully hinted at in the novel’s opening pages, set 10 years later, which describe Vincent sliding down the side of a container ship before plunging, Icarus-like, into stormy seas. A proper explanation is to come, but when it’s revealed early on that Vincent’s own mother drowned when she was 13, we do twig to a certain circularity.

Until she met Alkaitis while bartending at his grand but remote glass-and-cedar-beam Vancouver Island hotel, Vincent had been metaphorically adrift. A habit, begun after her mother’s death, of soothing herself by shooting five-minute videos of people-less images comes in handy filling long, dull hours in what she comes to view as the kingdom of money. Her relationship with Alkaitis is transactional: acting as arm candy over drinks with investors strikes Vincent as a reasonable trade-off for days spent shopping at Barneys and, more importantly, for security. Even so, she does not dislike him; she just does not feel any passion for him.

The novel’s multiple, at times complex changes in locale, perspective and time are signalled and made smooth through corresponding stylistic shifts. Sometimes this is done through chapters with recurring titles. Two called “The Office Chorus,” for instance, are written from the point of view of Alkaitis’s employees and co-conspirators. Two called “A Fairy Tale” offer a portal into Vincent’s pre-Lapsarian life, while three called “The Counterlife” involve Alkaitis visualizing a different, what-if existence from the confines of his prison cell.

Other times, The Glass Hotel presents like an old-fashioned mystery novel, the mystery being how the phrase “Why don’t you eat broken glass” ended up on one of the hotel’s high glass walls around the time Vincent and Alkaitis first meet. (The horror this induces in staff and guests struck me as a bit old-fashioned. Aimed at no one in particular, the phrase is arguably more odd than menacing.)

Narratively speaking, St. John Mandel is an effortless multitasker. Threads are dropped, picked up and relaced like a cat’s cradle, while the sprinkling of fantastical elements – several characters see ghosts or apparitions related to their conscience – mitigates the use of coincidence as plot strategy. It’s not always seamless. My attention wandered during a few detail-heavy stretches that felt a bit too explainingly faithful to the Madoff source material. I could not help feeling, too, that the peevish, victim-blaming Alkaitis who ends the novel, familiar from post-arrest Madoff interviews, did not quite jive with the more empathetic and reflective man we meet at the beginning. (In their inner voices, St. John Mandel’s characters can blend a bit.)

Where the novel persistently shines is in its nuanced probing of the themes – guilt, complacency, loss and theft – that serve as its ballast. This is often done through its vivid minor characters, such as Olivia Collins, an elderly Soho painter whose life savings are decimated by Alkaitis’s scheme; the sharp-witted Ella Kaspersky, who gloms to it early on; Alkaitis’s three-week secretary Simone, who milks it for a decade of cocktail-party fodder; Leon Prevant, a shipping executive who once roamed the open seas but who now roams back roads in his RV; and Paul, Vincent’s drug-addled half-brother, who ends up repurposing her video art for his own financial gain.

In the current landscape, I suspect many will find The Glass Hotel’s circumscribed tale of good old human avarice a kind of quaint comfort. Here’s a virus with a face, one we can lock away for good. Consider reading it back-to-back with Station Eleven so you can marvel at the bizarre, real-life parallels created by the mash-up: In the torrent of pandemic news, it would be easy to miss Madoff’s recent request for early release from his 150-year sentence on compassionate grounds. It seems that Madoff, who has terminal kidney disease, may be particularly susceptible to coronavirus. Whether he will prevail over the loud chorus opposing his release – of victims, in this case – remains to be seen.

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