Book Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Title: The Glass Hotel
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Publisher: Knopf
Publication date: March 24, 2020
Length: 302 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, an exhilarating novel set at the glittering intersection of two seemingly disparate events–a massive Ponzi scheme collapse and the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea.

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: Why don’t you swallow broken glass. High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. When the financial empire collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan’s wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: a woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container ship between ports of call.

In this captivating story of crisis and survival, Emily St. John Mandel takes readers through often hidden landscapes: campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping, service in luxury hotels, and life in a federal prison. Rife with unexpected beauty, The Glass Hotel is a captivating portrait of greed and guilt, love and delusion, ghosts and unintended consequences, and the infinite ways we search for meaning in our lives.

Once again, I find myself practically speechless after finishing a book by Emily St. John Mandel. Earlier this year, I was transfixed by the beauty of Sea of Tranquility. That book, however, was published after The Glass Hotel, and as I learned while reading Sea of Tranquility, there is a certain amount of cross-over between the two books. Naturally, I had to see what The Glass Hotel was all about.

As in her other books, the author weaves together seemingly disparate story threads and characters to create an intricate, interconnected whole. As the synopsis explains, the basic framework of the novel involves a vastly wealthy man whose fortune is built on a Ponzi scheme and his relationship with a woman whom he meets at the bar of a remote luxury hotel. As Vincent and Jonathan’s lives come together, we also see snippets of their pasts, as well as scenes involving other people caught up in their orbit. Some connections are clear, such as their various family members, but others are connected by circumstances, coincidences, random encounters, and chance overlaps at particular times and places.

The writing is gorgeous, sharp, and evocative. A recurring theme throughout centers on worlds within worlds. Vincent thinks of her years with Jonathan as her life in the “kingdom of money”. Jonathan, imprisoned for the remainder of his life, imagines what he calls his counterlife, a life that he inhabits in his mind that lets him experience the other ways his life might have gone, had he only gone different places or taken different actions.

At one point, a friend of Vincent’s tells her:

I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.”

A man who loses everything due to the Ponzi, now living a nomadic RV life at a time when he and his wife thought they’d be comfortably retired, contemplates that:

… they were citizens of a shadow country that in his previous life he’d only dimly perceived… He’d seen the shadow country, its outskirts and signs, he’d just never thought he’d have anything to do with it.

Another man who goes from hopeless addiction to triumph in a music career shares:

“I stepped through the looking glass into a strange new world where people actually listened to my music.” […] The condition of having landed in an unimaginable life was something he thought she might know something about.

As in Sea of Tranquility, the connections and overlapping lives are what make this book so fascinating, as do the intriguing characters and the sense of inevitability about the events and their outcomes.

I simply can’t say enough good things about The Glass Hotel. Now that I’ve read it, I feel an urgent need to re-read Sea of Tranquility (even though I just read it a few months ago).

I truly loved this book, and simply couldn’t put it down once I started.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

  1. I’m so glad you loved this! I think all her books are simply brilliant. I would never consider a book that involves finance to interest me, and yet😁

    • Same! I think when the book first came out and I heard that it was about a Ponzi scheme, I had no interest in reading it. I’m so glad I finally did! I keep thinking about Station Eleven as her first book, but I know she has earlier books too, and I keep wondering if I should track down some of those as well.

Comments... We love comments!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s