‘The Glass Hotel’: An examination of disasters large and small

The cover of "The Glass Hotel" (2020) by Emily St. John Mandel is pictured. via Amazon

With the coronavirus moving rapidly around the world, it feels both eerie and well-timed to be reviewing Emily St. John Mandel’s work. Of the author’s past four books, her last was “Station Eleven” (2014), a novel about the devastation of the world following a flu pandemic (Mandel herself has advocated to wait a few months before picking it up). Her most recent work is also relevant, given this country’s current economic outlook: “The Glass Hotel” (2020) shifts gears to a story about financial collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.

Mandel works in the mode of the disaster, examining the collapse of orders which were previously taken for granted. In “Station Eleven,” this was the collapse of society in the wake of mass death in a pandemic; in her latest novel, “The Glass Hotel,” the disasters are on a smaller scale, but are given the same close consideration that they are in her previous works. In “The Glass Hotel,” we follow Vincent, a bartender at a hotel where her half-brother also works. One night, vandalism appears scrawled on the glass wall of the lobby: Why don’t you swallow broken glass? That same night, Vincent meets the hotel’s owner, Jonathan Alkaitis, and a year later, she is living with him, masquerading as his wife in public. Yet, crimes are taking place in this new world of Manhattan: Alkaitis is an investor at the center of a Ponzi scheme, which includes the savings of both financial giants and his personal family and friends. Mandel builds an intricate story in which she pays close attention to small details that turn out to be important later, all while probing how people react when faced with crises that threaten their existence.

Mandel’s prose is the most impressive part of the novel, showing that she’s equally adept within the fantastical world of “Station Eleven” as she is in the telling of a financial scandal. It’s not a one-to-one match — her romanticism that is so prevalent in “Station’s Eleven” is toned down in “The Glass Hotel” — but as always in her writing, she has a way of capturing the truth of her character’s perspectives that feels both original and completely genuine (for example, in one particularly impressive passage, she draws a brilliant connection between a shipping executive and a psychic). She is at her best when she delves into the perspectives of Vincent and Alkaitis especially; there’s a deft awareness in her descriptions of how money changes one’s worldview and security. Vincent becomes a citizen of the “kingdom of money,” and grows to understand the way that the rich can move through society with the confidence that nothing will ever hurt them; this is only exacerbated by her proximity to Alkaitis, who, in spite of the Ponzi scheme he runs, has a certain belief that nothing will go wrong.

Throughout, the novel’s structure pulls the reader in: Mandel plays with time a great deal, unafraid to boldly foreshadow plot details while refusing to give final details until the exact right moment in the text. The result is a book that feels precisely and intentionally woven, as Mandel brings in earlier characters and details at specific moments to advance the plot and build illuminating connections between characters. Yet, as engaging as this is, it also ends up pulling the reader away from the full impact that the story can have. The story is a brilliant meditation on what it means to be faced with a disaster, but the structure’s effect feels less like fitting puzzle pieces together to get a whole picture and more like watching a magic trick take place; the result is impressive, but there’s a lack of emotional resonance that the book needs to fully grip the reader. Mandel’s need to constantly push the plot forward ends up decentering the story a little too much, and as a result at the book’s closure, in spite of seeing each character’s full arc, we aren’t as attached to them as we could be.

This is not to say that the novel is unsatisfying or overly contrived; whatever “The Glass Hotel” lacks in resonance, it more than makes up for in its suspense that grips the reader. Especially once the crimes of the novel all start to come crashing down, it becomes clear that Mandel knows how to craft a page-turner that’s difficult to put down. The end result is a novel that takes readers on a wild journey, alternatively thrilling and puzzling — which for me, is almost enough.