Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Genre: Mystery Thriller,
First Publication: 2020
Major Characters: Paul, Vincent, Jonathan Alkaitis, Leon Prevant
Theme: Fraud, Guilt and Haunting; Love and relationships;
Setting Place: Canada
Book Summary: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Vincent is the beautiful bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass-and-cedar palace on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. New York financier Jonathan Alkaitis owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together. That same day, a hooded figure scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: ‘Why don’t you swallow broken glass.’ Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company called Neptune-Avramidis, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core. Thirteen years later, just after a massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis ship.
Weaving together the lives of these characters, Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel moves between the ship, the towers of Manhattan, and the wilderness of remote British Columbia, painting a breathtaking picture of greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, art and the ghosts of our pasts.
Book Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Anyone who has read Station Eleven or in fact any of the author’s previous novels will know that Mandel writes thoughtful and addictive stories. Her prose doesn’t shout a story at you, it’s far more subtle than that. Instead you’re more likely to be taken through a gentle maze of events that eventually knit together to deliver a gut punch.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel starts with what appears to be a scene of Vincent’s final moments after falling off a ship. The 5 star luxury Glass Hotel was in Caiette, a small and remote part of Vancouver Island. It was owned by super wealthy Jonathan Alkaitis and part of the story was about his Ponzi scheme but also was about his ‘wife’ Vincent who disappeared from the deck of the ship Neptune Cumberland. The story started with this and ended with it so the beginning is literally the end and I liked this circular approach. Quickly the time frame changes and we’re introduced to Paul, a dropout from the University of Toronto where he was studying finance. Paul’s real interest is music but for reasons that will become apparent later he ended up studying a subject he really had no interest in. Paul, we learn, has a half-sister called Vincent.
“Memories are always bent retrospectively to fit individual narratives”
The story floats about in both time and place. The time element runs from the early 1990’s to close to the present day and the places are principally British Columbia and Manhattan. When we next come across Vincent and Paul they are both working at a luxury hotel situated at the most northerly tip of Vancouver Island. One night a lone guest spots a disturbing message scrawled on the large glass window of the lounge. Later that same night Vincent, who runs the bar, meets the rich owner of the hotel and a strange deal is struck between the two. We’ll make sense of these two events, but not yet, not for some time.
There are essentially two threads at play: the story of Vincent and Paul, of their early life and of how their lives play out and then, as the cast expands, the impact of a Ponzi Scheme on its investors as it all goes belly up and their money is lost. Anyone familiar with the notorious Bernie Madoff investment scandal will have a sense of just how totally investors in this type of full-on con can be financially ruined. And interestingly a couple of characters we meet along the way featured in the aforementioned Station Eleven; things turn out differently for Miranda Carroll and Leon Prevant in this book. So what do we have here, a Sliding Doors style set-up in which a very different life for this pair plays out? It’s a quirky element in this intriguing piece.
“There is exquisite lightness in waking each morning with the knowledge that the worst has already happened.”
At first, I found the storyline all over the place and I felt a bit baffled because I couldn’t see where it was heading. It jumped from timeline to timeline and character to character in a seemingly random and disconnected fashion and I couldn’t join the dots! Then it all began to slot into place and I saw the reasoning and then I was able to settle into enjoying the book.
I love the way the story is put together. After each player is introduced we lose sight of them for a while, only to catch up with them later. Each is deftly drawn and sympathetically brought to life and I found myself caring for all of them, even the bad guy at the centre of the fraud. The time shifts are also brilliantly effective and allow the story to play out in a surprising but highly effective way. There are ghosts here too and that’s not something I’m usually accepting of in any tale, but strangely they work here – they provide a linkage and ultimately a wholeness to the story that might not otherwise be there.
“One of our signature flaws as a species: we will risk almost anything to avoid looking stupid.”
I thought the financial sections about the scheme were really interesting and I thought the air of panic was really well captured although there was some relief from Jonathan that the deception was over. And I found his thoughts on the fraud fascinating as he suggested that his investors must have known as no one got returns as they did unless it was too good to be true.
I loved the ‘ghostly’ element to the book and thought that was very clever as characters who were dead appeared to the living or was it their guilty conscience? The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel has a number of allegorical elements and the allegory I liked the best was of the swan who should have flown south but stayed in the water too long and froze which was clearly what Jonathan did. He should have bailed long before he was unmasked and so he too froze in the water. I liked Jonathan’s Counterlife and Non Counterlife which he used to escape the day to day reality of being caught and it looked at an alternate ‘reality’. I also very much liked the character of pragmatic Vincent, the other characters were not so likeable but they were well depicted.