I’ve been pretty excited about Emily St. John Mandel’s new book The Glass Hotel for awhile. Mandel (St. John is her middle name) wrote 2014’s wildly popular post-apocalyptic flu novel, Station Eleven, and hasn’t returned to that world directly, although some characters look familiar. Instead, The Glass Hotel examines the transparency and density of relationships and the echoing effects seemingly random decisions can make, via ghostly apparitions and a Ponzi scheme.
What’s a Ponzi scheme? You’re not, as one character rather coldly states, an idiot if you don’t know. When an investment company uses later investors’ funds to pay earlier investors, rather than actually invest anything, that’s a Ponzi scheme, and an awesome novel plot. Few deeds have no ramifications and their effects run throughout the course of the globe. Main(ish) character Vincent, an alluring young woman who goes from bartender to self-aware trophy wife of con artist Jonathan Alkaitis in the flick of a page, witnesses the rise and fall of her musician brother alongside the dissolution of her husband’s fraudulent financial empire. Meanwhile, another world exists where pivotal choices take different turns and loved ones affected by betrayal cross over to haunt these broken characters. The shifting nature of reality and choice pair excellently with the transient landscapes that fill the backdrop of the novel. Every landscape, from ocean to prison cell somehow seems like its own huge world, populated by broken people making poor choices.
And yet, the smallness of the world shows clearly the infinite number of interconnections. It stretches patience, actually. The whole six degrees of separation style calls back to Station Eleven – which seems to be a parallel novel, since Miranda and Leon are characters here – but it creates the effect more of exclusion than universality. Meanwhile the excluded characters, like Paul and Oskar, tend to be hiding more pain and suffering than those at the center of it all, Vincent and Jonathan. In particular, Vincent’s haunted, dreamy aimlessness seeps into other characters’ psyche, creating the effect of a splitting crack, but it also finds its way into every other characters’ voice, too. The result is a rather bleak read, with the occasional dash of black humor, more of which would certainly be welcomed.
Anybody who needs a book right now will love the artifice that is The Glass Hotel. It brings all the poetry and strangeness that have become Emily St. John Mandel’s brand. It’s dreamy, dreary, and will make you think more deeply about what could have been than a whole season of Quantum Leap. Grab a blanket (it’s still cold where I live ) and settle in.
Three stars out of five
Page count: 301
Favorite quote: “If another memo could possibly be sent out, this one specific to smokers: You cannot be both an unwashed bohemian and Cary Grant.”