Well, really, I should have expected this. I knew this book would be incredibly well-written (it was), and that I often have a bad reaction to lit-fic, but I figured her talent would get me through. And that was true, but this really did not speak to me the way that Station Eleven did. Despite that book being about what happens after the end of the world, that book is full of hope for humanity, and while it has elements of heartbreaking sadness, they’re tempered by beauty and joy.
Here, St. John Mandel is exploring something that is not beautiful, and there is no joy to be found. Most of the characters in The Glass Hotel only possess beauty and “happiness” insofar as they can take it from someone else. They are all empty inside, seemingly incapable of creating meaning in their lives, except for one character who manages to find happiness, and the ending she receives for her trouble is upsetting to say the least. I believe all of this was done on purpose, as a critique of a system that elevates wealth at the expense of everyone else.
If you didn’t know, this book has at its center a Ponzi scheme that is about to implode, and we mostly follow people involved in that, and a great many of those are the ones orchestrating it. There are a couple of characters who are victims of the scheme, and it was in them that I felt the most power in the story. They’re the ones that feel the real consequences. We are not meant to feel sorry for those perpetrating the scheme, although St. John Mandel’s writing is so empathetic that you do see them as full humans, but ultimately the book condemns people who live their lives like thieves, and Jonathan Alkaitis (the Bernie Madoff stand-in here) is just the most obvious example.
I would recommend this to people who like artistic, highly empathetic depictions in literature, and who don’t mind slow plots with character studies. It’s very smart and beautiful, but it mostly made me feel bad. I would not recommend this if you are having anxiety around money right now, as I am, because many scenes and characters made me angry or stressed, made worse by the fact that it was so well-written.
[3.5 stars, rounded up because it was very well-written but not 100% my cup of tea]