I so loved Station Eleven when I read it earlier this year that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel. I wasn’t disappointed; yet, The Glass Hotel is so like and at the same time so unlike Mandel’s previous novel that I’m not sure where to begin. While I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Station Eleven, I’m giving it 5 stars because (once again) the writing is so damn beautiful that it transports me. Also, it hardly seems fair to downgrade a book for being not quite as wonderful as a favorite by the same author. It would be like giving Othello 4 stars because I prefer King Lear.
So where to begin? A drug addict escaping from trouble; the memory of a drowned parent; a hotel in the middle of nowhere; threatening words “Why don’t you swallow broken glass” etched on a window; a trophy wife; a Ponzi scheme; ruined lives. In Mandel’s typical style, she gives us multiple story lines and deep character studies within the framework of a story arc in which the characters interconnect: some briefly, some to a tremendous degree.
As in Station Eleven, there isn’t a clear-cut main character, though a woman with the unusual name of Vincent (named after poet Edna St. Vincent Millay) is the most obvious choice. Vincent’s mother drowned in a canoeing accident when she was a child, and as a young woman she takes a job as a bartender in a remote hotel that looks out over the water where her mother died. Opportunity and how people choose to respond to it is a major theme in this novel, and when Jonathan Alkaitis, the hotel owner, visits the establishment and tacitly propositions Vincent, she makes a choice to enter a new life. “A lonely man walks into a bar and sees an opportunity. An opportunity walks into a bar and meets a bartender. A lonely bartender looks up from her work and the message on the window makes her want to flee, because the bartender’s mother disappeared while canoeing and she’s told everyone all her life that it was an accident but there is absolutely no way of knowing whether this is true. . . . when she leaves this place it will only be to go to another bar, and another after that, and another, and another, and anyway that’s the moment when the man, the opportunity, extends his hand.”
Choices and the repercussions ripple throughout the story, most obviously when the Ponzi scheme Alkaitis is running collapses. Those employees complicit in the “arrangement” respond in different ways, some by acknowledging their collusion, some by deflecting blame to Alkaitis, and others rewinding their tape to the moment when their actions crossed the line, making the feeble defense, “It’s possible to both know and not know something.”
Other characters include Leon Prevant, a middle-aged shipping manager who invests his retirement savings with Alkaitis in spite of not understanding how he makes his money because, as he notes ruefully, “One of our signature flaws as a species: we will risk almost anything to avoid looking stupid,” and Olivia Collins, an artist who has the misfortune of meeting Alkaitis through a connection with his older brother and eventually becoming “friends” with him.
Social commentary runs through the novel, primarily in the description of the kingdom of money Alkaitis inhabits (“that’s what money gives you, the freedom to stop thinking about money”) vs. the shadowland where many of his victims end up (“people who’d slipped beneath the surface of society, into a territory without comfort or room for error”), but the story is mostly about choices and decisions. Unlike Station Eleven, in which the inciting event (the pandemic) happens to the characters, the incidents in The Glass Hotel are driven by the character’s choices, whether that choice is to give an acquaintance Ecstasy, to marry for security, to defraud a friend, or to trust someone. It doesn’t end in hope the way Station Eleven does; perhaps the fact that our choices are our own is the cause for hope.