The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel — book review

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“But they were citizens of a shadow country that in his previous life he’d only dimly perceived, a country located at the edge of an abyss. ”

Emily St. John Mandel’s prose in The Glass Hotel is certainly striking. She deftly weaves realism with a dreamlike atmosphere, while also adding an elegiac touch to otherwise mundane scenes and observations. Occasionally her style seems intentionally opaque, such as when she keeps her characters’ motivations slightly out of our reach. Nevertheless, her prose retains a compelling and extremely readable quality.

“He feels it’s important to keep the two separate, memory vs. counterlife, but he’s been finding the separation increasingly difficult. It’s a permeable border.”

The Glass Hotel reads like a series of short stories or vignettes that are linked together by certain familiar names and faces as well as some memorable incidents (the “Why don’t you swallow broken glass” graffiti) and life-changing events (a Ponzi scheme).
Most chapters introduce us to a new character: we begin with Paul, Vincent’s troubled half-brother, who has spent most of his life as an addict. We then move to Walter the night manager at the Hotel Caiette where Paul and Vincent also work, respectively as the night houseman and bartender. The following chapters focus in particular on the hotel’s owner, Jonathan Alkaitis, his coworkers, employees, and somewhat peripherally on his victims. Vincent is one of the story’s central characters, as she becomes involved with Alkaitisa.
To say more about these characters or their stories would be giving too much away. Most of them are unhappy, or feel somewhat unfilled, and most of them dream of entering or remaining in ‘the kingdom of money’.

Throughout these entwining narratives Mandel examines themes of guilt and culpability. Characters are often forced to reconcile themselves with the consequences of their own actions. There are those who are willing to use, betray, or manipulate others for their own personal gain, and there also those who feel like they themselves are victims. Through her perceptive prose Mandel creates some rather nuanced portrayals: her characters’ may be selfish, self-seeking, unwilling to change or to admit fault but they also have moments of self-awareness and empathy.
Their conversations and interactions always rang true to life, and there are no enlightening or cathartic moments or encounters. While there are quite a few incredibly wealthy characters, the novel does not glamorise them or their lifestyles. If anything Mandel depicts just how fallible and human people ultimately are, regardless of their finances or social status.

There were certain chapters that felt gimmicky: such as the ‘chorus’ one, narrated by ‘we’, Alkaitis’ employees. Their names and personalities sort of blurred together. Contrast those ‘chorus’ chapters with the novel’s first chapter (which followed Paul) or the ones in which Alkaitis’ is imprisoned…and well, they just seemed lacking. Paul’s chapter was narrated with such clarity and feeling that makes chapters like the ‘chorus’ one seem contrived and unsatisfying.

The thing that kept me from really enjoying this novel, other than its not always satisfying crosscutting narratives, was Vincent. Whereas every other single character is flawed she is presented as inherently different from others. Her art struck me as childish (taking 5 minute videos of the landscape?…) and most of what she says or does seemed to be an attempt at emphasising at her mysterious ‘uniqueness’…and I just really dislike this type of character. She wasn’t fascinating or particularly believable, and it seemed a pity that she is the character who appears almost throughout the course of this novel. It seemed she was good at everything she set out to do (bartending, being Alkaitis’ wife, working as a cook, being an artist). Not only did I find her to be apathetic but she was curiously enough the most unsympathetic of the lot.

Personally, I would have preferred this novel if it had maintained its focus on the Hotel Caiette, rather than delving into the consequences of a Ponzi scheme. Given the novel’s summary and title I also thought that the “Why don’t you swallow broken glass” message would play a bigger role in the various narratives. Paul and Vincent relationship also felt like a missed opportunity…Vincent in particular would have benefited from having some more ‘background’ (for example her relationship with her aunt or her mother). But she seemed so untethered from others, her only defining quality was her lacklustre art.

While The Glass Hotel is certainly well-written and presents its readers with a series of interesting and intersecting narratives, which often feature characters in moral or financial crisis, part of me wished that Mandel had presented us with a more in-depth examination of her characters and their lives. Vincent in particular was an extremely dissatisfying character who seemed to possess only the shadow of a personality. She was too vacant.
The imagery and themes within this novel struck me as characteristic of Mandel: boats, containers, white-collar crimes, discussions on art…I’m sure that fans of Mandel will be able to appreciate The Glass Hotel more than I was.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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