The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Sometimes a novel comes along that is atmospheric and beautiful and so enigmatic it begs discussion. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel is that book: frustrating, elusive, open to interpretation. What does it all mean? Readers who enjoy literary analysis will turn the last pages and immediately want to connect with others to puzzle it out.
The Glass Hotel begins with shards of poetry, labyrinthine flashbacks to Paul and his half-sister Vincent’s teen years, and then, the Hotel Caiette—a five-star showcase of old-growth cedar and floor-to-ceiling windows on a speck of land off the northern coast of Vancouver Island owned by billionaire investor Jonathan Alkaitis.
It takes some time for the pieces to come into focus. Vincent, once a headstrong wild-child, is now tending bar at the exclusive resort on the island she couldn’t wait to escape. She’s convinced Paul, long in and out of rehab, to join her as the hotel’s night houseman. One evening, someone etches “Why don’t you swallow broken glass” in acid on one of the picture windows. It’s disturbing and curious, an ominous threat.
The plot quickly advances. Alkaitis charms Vincent, who moves to New York with him to a life of opulence and leisure. But it’s not long before this world shatters. Alkaitis’ multibillion dollar empire is nothing more than an elaborate Ponzi scheme, and even before he is sentenced to 170 years in federal prison, Vincent disappears. Eventually, she becomes a cook on a transoceanic container ship, filming videos of the roiling seas and traveling from port to port. We flash forward to Paul, now a successful composer and functioning heroin addict. Then back to Vincent—adrift, but seemingly content.
Alkaitis is clearly based on Bernie Madoff (who, you may have heard, died in prison this April). The peek into his brain and those of the people around him is fascinating. There are the gullible and greedy investors, the scheming conspirators, the clear-eyed analysts whose warnings to the SEC go unheeded. There might be a glass houses metaphor somewhere embedded in this novel, although no one is actually throwing stones—most are content to stay in the glass hotel, pampered and privileged, looking at the wilderness but not in the wilderness, as long as the riches keep flowing.
Canadian author Mandel first rose to prominence when her novel Station Eleven was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2014. Despite being speculative science fiction, that book, about a devastating pandemic that wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population, is a little too real given our current coronavirus situation.
The Glass Hotel, by contrast, is set in a more familiar modern milieu, yet comes across as otherworldly and distant. What the two books have in common is their tone: quiet, dark, haunting. There is a sadness and loneliness throughout The Glass Hotel. This could be too much for some readers at this time; others looking for a puzzle to ponder will enjoy the challenge.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at https://www.wcls.org/info. All branches of WCLS are open to the public. Whatcom County Library System is a separate entity from Bellingham Public Library, although the two systems often partner. Photo of Emily St. John Mandel by Sarah Shatz.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 30, 2021.)