The newest novel by Emily St John Mandel finds us at a hotel on a small Canadian island where several characters initially interact. We begin with Paul who has run away from college after accidentally passing along bad E. He takes a job at the hotel where his sister works, and he gets involved in an act of curious vandalism that gets him fired. His sister Vincent meets the rich owner of the hotel and begins what she understands as a transactional relationship with him, a millionaire investment fund manager whose wife has died recently.
The novel then jumps around a few different time periods and narrators as we see the investment fund slowly revealed to be a Ponzi scheme.
The novel is primarily focused on the ideas of culpability and responsibility (but not particularly redemption, which is a relief). And while the writing is often quite good, I often found the novel to be a mess. The two biggest issues that came up for me is that I found some unfortunate or maybe confusing contradictions in the characterizations and tone that I couldn’t fully wrap my head around. I wasn’t clear on some character motivation, and there’s a few scene where choices and feelings being expressed seemed almost inexplicable to me. In addition, there’s a few moments where I felt I was being somewhat condescended to via the narration, especially regarding the financial world the novel often inhabits. The narration felt artificial too, as in the narration had clearly looked up all we were being told about the world and was likely accurate, but it didn’t really seem like it came from any real place of knowledge about that world. There’s a point where a character says “Of course, I know what a Ponzi scheme is, because I’m not a fucking idiot” and I felt very connected to the character in that moment because there was plenty of time where I felt the novel was treating me like one.