March Book Recommendation: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, out March 24th
It's difficult to pinpoint just what makes The Glass Hotel so compulsive a read. It's not exactly the Ponzi scheme and the ghosts, nor is it the ease with which Mandel moves between the points of view of her riveting characters and effortlessly leaps between timelines. Studded with flashes of poetry, of crystalline observations that drill to the core of life, The Glass Hotel has a rhythm and a pace that makes it impossible to put down.
But how to talk about this novel without giving the story away?
Think greed--the sort that motivates our society and on which our economy is predicated.
If you don't want to spoil the story at all, if you want to open to the first page and be completely surprised, stop reading this at the nearby section break. I won't be offended.
But as you dive into this novel, be ready for a ride from one timeline and one character to another, as bit by bit the shards of story begin to come together. Each section, like a single piece of stained glass, can only be understood as a part of the greater, inscrutable, whole. In other words, The Glass Hotel is not written in the YA mode of fiction so popular these days, with its straightforward narrative structure and its sentences that explain everything in the simplest possible terms. And so, as a reader, you have to be able to sit with the unknown--the puzzle that drives the novel forward.
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The novel opens with a dreamlike monologue entitled "Vincent in the Ocean" and dated 2018. "Begin at the end," it begins.
In the next chapter, in 1999, we enter a nightclub with twenty-three year old Paul, who we learn is Vincent's half brother. When he gives a boy a pill he didn't know was bad and the boy dies, he falls into a tailspin, entering a netherworld where the ghost of the boy also dwells.
The next section takes place in 2004, at the Hotel Caiette, a remote five-star hotel on Vancouver Island, where Paul, seeming recovered, is a custodian and Vincent tends bar. On the night she meets Alkaitis, the owner of the hotel, a message inexplicably appears, etched with an acid marker, on the lobby's glass wall. "Why don't you swallow broken glass?" it reads: a mystery the novel takes its time to unfold. But there are many of these puzzles, each narrative thread containing its own.
Alkaitis, we soon learn, is the mastermind behind an international Ponzi scheme. When it teeters and crumbles to the ground, taking everyone involved--both the guilty and the innocent--down with it, Vincent, who has been posing as his wife, disappears into a life that resembles neither her bartender days, nor her life in "the kingdom of money."
Incarcerated, Alkaitis enters what he calls "the counterlife," and spends his time increasingly in a dream state, a version of the way his life might have gone. As reality slips for him, the ghosts arrive, one after the other. His state of mind is reminiscent of King Lear (a production of which opens Mandel's novel Station Eleven).
If you loved Station Eleven, this new novel lives up to its richness and complexity in every way. Where the former is set in a possible future world, the latter is set in this one. The Glass Hotel will especially delight when a few of the same characters--shipping executive Leon Prevant and his assistant Miranda--make their appearance. (I happened to read The Glass Hotel first, and so felt thrilled when I discovered these characters were also in Station Eleven, though both novels stand completely on their own.) Watching Mandel's characters leap novels, timelines, and worlds, one can't help but feel that each novel is, in a sense, a "counterlife" of the other. In this, Mandel shows her hand as the master of her fictional worlds, a magician, with seemingly limitless possibilities up her sleeve.