The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

I read Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel (2020) so quickly I had to force myself to slow down to keep from running out of book at the wrong moment. I can’t remember the last time that happened, and what’s even more remarkable is that the novel isn’t exactly a conventionally structured page turner. It’s something of a low-concept mosaic, whipping through viewpoints and time periods, but it never loses its momentum.

The glass hotel of the title is located on an island off the west coast of Canada, an opulent resort in the middle of nowhere. It’s owned by one Jonathan Alkaitis, a wealthy New York financial advisor who runs a highly successful firm. At least, he does so right up until the 2008 financial crash, when his business is revealed as an elaborate Ponzi scheme, which crashes dramatically. The repercussions of his criminal enterprise are far-reaching, scarring or outright destroying the lives of the people around him—including his alluring young trophy wife Vincent. The novel’s many episodes, which takes place before and after Alkaitis’ comeuppance, tell a number of disparate, individual stories, but they’re weaved together in a manner that paints a moving, surprisingly coherent picture.

Mandel’s novel Station Eleven made a striking first impression, but I think The Glass Hotel may be even more accomplished. Her prose is unpretentious but stylish, and the narrative—even as its focus remains elusive—is utterly absorbing. Zipping through the first half of the book, I had a weird sense of reading something stream-of-conscious; indeed, it didn’t even feel like it was about anything. As it happens, though, themes are deftly folded in and through-lines carefully mapped. The resulting journey is like reading a cleverly interconnected collection that adds up to a novel; I was reminded of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Lydia Millet’s Fight No More. It eloquently examines the fraudulence of western capitalism, the fine lines that separate legality from crime, legitimate success from theft, privilege from poverty. Our way of life, it suggests, demands compromises from us all. Coming at the sad, powerful point from multiple angles, while dipping one pinky toe into the waters of fantasy, Mandel has written a thought-provoking, subtle novel of societal critique that resonates perfectly with the current moment, as western civilization’s mask of false respectability falls away.

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