Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Cloud-Atlas-esque novels seem to be all the rage in 2022…

“This place is precarious, that’s the only word for it. It’s the lightest sketch of civilizations, caught between the forest and the sea. He doesn’t belong here”

This is my third novel by Mandel and once again I have rather conflicting thoughts and feelings about her work. On the one hand, I recognize how talented a writer she is. Her prose has this cool yet delicate quality to it that brought to mind authors such as Hanya Yanagihara and Ann Patchett . I always found myself appreciating her subtle storytelling and her ability to make her characters retain a certain unknowability. I also find her use of imagery to be highly effective in that these motifs add a certain nostalgic atmosphere to her settings. So much so that I often read of her characters and or the landscapes which she writes of with a strong sense of Deja Vu. Maybe because Mandel often returns to the same issues or even goes so far as to refer to the same characters in seemingly unconnected/stand-alone books (a la mandel-multiverse). Here this sense of familiarity with her characters and their struggles is very fitting indeed given the story’s ‘crucial’ theme.

“[T]hese moments that had arisen one after another after another, worlds fading out so gradually that their loss was apparent only in retrospect.”

The book opens in 1912. Edwin St. Andrew is but a young English lad who after angering his father for the last time has been banished to the ‘new world’. His attempts at making a go of things in Canada don’t quite go as smoothly as he’d hoped. There are some stunning descriptions of the landscapes here and there was something about Edwin that appealed to me. There was almost an otherworldly feel to this section, partly due to the remoteness and vastness of Edwin’s new ‘home’ (i am not at all familiar with that type of environment hence my finding it surreal). This section comes to a close with Edwin witnessing something quite Other.
We then are reunited with a side character from The Glass Hotel. It’s corona-time and Mirella (Vincent’s ‘friend’) has yet to fully recover from the death of her partner and the whole Ponzi fallout. She has a girlfriend but we learn virtually nothing about her or their relationship as this section is more of an ode to Vincent. FYI, I hated Vincent in The Glass Hotel. She was the reason why I didn’t really love that book, and, understandably then, I was not particularly enthusiastic when I realized that she would play a role here as well. Even if she is not on the ‘page’, her presence saturates much of Mirella’s narrative, to the point where it struck me as a bit unfair to Mirella herself. She’s an interesting character in her own right and yet we don’t really get to focus on her. Paul, Vincent’s brother, makes an appearance but his character here didn’t strike me as particularly nuanced. It turns out that Vincent too is connected to the bizarre phenomenon witnessed by Edwin and once again the narrative makes much of her ‘art’ (coughbanal-as-it-is). That the narrative includes Mirella unfavourably comparing her gf to Vincent was kind of a joke. It really cemented why I did not like Vincent, to begin with. I am sick of Not Like Other People type of characters.
The following section is set in the 2200s. Here we learn that some people now live on colonies on the moon, one of them is this famous author named Olive Llewellyn. She’s now on a book tour on Earth where she discusses her hit book which is, surprise surprise, about a pandemic. During her tour however Olive becomes preoccupied with the news about an actual pandemic…Olive struck me as a self-insert. There were so many lines that just came across as if they were coming from Mandel herself. Particularly the questions about what it feels like to have written a pandemic novel when there is an actual pandemic etc…I find this sort of stuff cringe and there was something slightly self-congratulatory and ‘special about Olive that just made it really hard for me to even believe in her (she was a bit of Vincent 2.0). Additionally, this section is set in the 2200s and I did not buy into it. Moon colonies aside the future envisioned here was not particularly thought out. Many inconsistencies have to do with the tech available (people still have devices?) and the way the characters spoke was just too contemporary, almost old-fashioned even (i could all too easily imagine someone saying ‘old chap’). This worked for the sections before but here it was just prevented me from fully immersing myself in the events being narrated. The discussions about pandemics, epidemics, and writing about these things, were rather contrived, which again, pulled me out of the story. It turns out that Olive also is connected to the bizarre phenomenon witnessed by Edwin and Vincent.

The final section is set in the 2400s and once again the world described here did not feel particularly ‘futuristic’. While the author does include one or two details that remind us that the people from this century write and speak differently to say now, these were not enough to establish a believable setting. Anyhow, here we follow Gaspery-Jacques Roberts who is a fairly bland character. The most interesting about him is of course his name. His sister is yet another Not Like Other People type of character (there is something about Mandel’s female characters that really annoys me…). She works for this ‘mysterious’ institution and eventually, Gaspery finds himself joining her ranks. He is assigned a mission: to find out more about the anomaly connecting Edwin, Vincent, and Olive. I was hoping that we would return to the previous perspectives, such as Edwin and Mirella, but the narrative from this point onward favours Gaspery. There was a very funny lil scene about his cat, but for the most part, his story struck me as vaguely predictable. The man was bland and the moral dilemma he faces was handled in a rather simplistic and hurried way.

It would have been nice for the timelines set in the 2200s and the 2400s to be less heteronormative and gender-normative. We get a queer character and a sapphic side character but that’s kind of it (if memory serves). There were some interesting themes at play in the book such as human connection and loneliness, empathy and choice. I appreciated the motifs that were interspersed throughout these interconnected narratives, as they consolidated the connection between these seemingly unconnected people. The conversations around pandemics were rather been-there-done-that kind of thing. I actually believe that they would have suited to an article more than this type of piece of fiction. I did find the execution to be ultimately disappointing. While the truth behind this anomaly wasn’t ‘shocking’ I did like the way it was played out. I do wish however that we could have spent more time with the characters we were introduced to early on in the book (rather than sticking to mr. boring and the cringy self-insert).
As you can probably tell by my somewhat incoherent review I feel rather conflicted about this book. Mandel’s prose is chief’s kiss. Her characters and her story however were a bit of a flop. I would have liked for the ‘anomaly’ to retain a certain mystery rather than it being explained away. I think I preferred the subtle magical realism of The Glass Hotel than the more sci-fi elements that were at play here, which were 1) not really convincing and 2) a bit sci-fi 101.

I would definitely recommend it to Mandel fans (my mother among them). If you are, like me, not entirely ‘sold’ on her work well, it seems unlikely that this will be the one to win you over (then again, i might be wrong here).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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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