Emily St. John Mandel seems to have a bit of a knack for prescient writing. Her fourth novel, 2014’s Station Eleven, follows a troupe of actors after a pandemic flu wipes out 99% of the population. Aaaand here we are, though thankfully it looks like we’ll avoid such mass devastation.
Mandel’s new novel, The Glass Hotel, hearkens back to the 2008 financial crisis, to the world of Ponzi schemes and life savings flushed down the drain. This book also feels a bit prophetic as we watch stock markets tumble, the price of oil sink to negative value, and job losses skyrocket into the tens of millions.
The Glass Hotel follows Vincent, a beautiful bartender working in a waterfront luxury glass hotel in British Columbia, and her brother Paul, a heroin addict who dreams of a better life for himself. One evening, two things happen, leading the reader on a journey which weaves together the lives of characters past and present. First, the message “Why don’t you swallow broken glass?” is found scrawled on one of the windows of the hotel, and second, financier Jonathan Alkaitis, the very person the sinister message is meant for, meets and falls for Vincent.
Vincent is swept up into a life of luxury which is cut short after Jonathan is arrested for running a Ponzi scheme and is sentenced to 170 years in prison. Meanwhile, Paul rockets his way toward a career as a star contemporary composer, though his addiction remains intact. Their lives, and the lives of others in the book, swirl and circle each other without quite touching, as each character’s life circumstances hurtle between the expected and the unexpected. In The Glass Hotel, reality is never what it seems and, much like we’ve seen with the financial crises of our lifetimes, the lives we live now and the things we take for granted can disappear at the drop of a hat.
It’s a bleak way to look at things - true - but Mandel’s understated prose and her exploration of reality vs. the “Counterlife” manage to bring a sense of humanity to each and every character, despite their current circumstances. Vincent moves from bartender to billionaire’s wife to ship cook, all the while viewing life as a gift. Alkaitis’s victims pick up the pieces of their lives after financial ruin and move on, persisting through the hardship. After finishing The Glass Hotel, I was left asking myself, how can we turn even the most sour lemons into lemonade?
The Glass Hotel is a long one, but if you're in the market for some distraction, I would highly recommend it!