Much like many fellow Cannonballers, I was highly anticipating this novel from Emil St. John Mandel after loving Station Eleven. Much like that book, The Glass Hotel offers a series of interconnected characters throughout different moments of their lives. The biggest difference, I felt however, was in the setting: while Station Eleven presents a hypothetical future world, The Glass Hotel is firmly rooted in reality and modern history, including the economic crash of 2008.
Specifically, the narrative of The Glass Hotel centers on a woman named Vincent who is a bartender at a luxury hotel in British Columbia, and how her life becomes entwined with the owner of the hotel named Jonathan, who is involved in a long-running investment scam. Other characters that come in and out of focus include Vincent’s half-brother named Paul, various people who invested with Jonathan over the years, and other friends and co-workers of the two along the way.
The picture painted by these passing moments presents questions of our personal responsibility and guilt, greed in a money-focused world, how we grab onto opportunities when they come to us, and the dreams we create for our future despite our present reality. Although the novel follows different events across lifetimes, it is definitely a more character-focused exercise than a plot-driven one.
While I typically would love stories that interconnect and am a big lover of more character-driven stories with internalized narratives, this one left me feeling a little cold. I can’t quite pinpoint it: maybe it was that by the time we actually got to Jonathan’s point of view, so much had occurred that I didn’t feel like there was space for me to reach into his mind. Nor did I really care for all the characters introduced that were involved in his Ponzi scheme, that took up such a solid chunk within the middle of the novel; the characters I really connected to in regards to this were the victims of the scheme, but we kept going back into the office as things fell apart and crashed down, almost in unnecessary detail while other major points in the novel seemed to skim by with just enough to give attention to its importance but without spelling things out so specifically. These are the types of vignettes presented that I found the most compelling.
I also couldn’t quite grasp the motivations and desires of Vincent; there is something so drifting about her, there are huge spaces where she simply exists wherever life has taken her just because the chance arose but she never really felt that strongly about it (in her own words, “I thought, why not?”) which didn’t open much space for me to really connect with what she wanted, and therefore for me to understand what I wanted for her.
I will say, as I believe I mentioned in my previous review, that I have been having trouble fulling getting into books lately. Nothing is quite hitting in the way that I want it to, and this book was no exception. Maybe it was the way pieces meandered before falling into place, maybe it was the way the most compelling moments were given room to breathe in the mind while the least were far-too detailed as if the reader wouldn’t catch on otherwise (but did I personally want to in those moments? Not really, tbh).
So at the end of it all, I appreciate what was being offered by The Glass Hotel, but I am left feeling chilly from its contents: from the sea-wind and glass of the settings, to the pain in the characters, to the harsh reality of it all. Novels such as this stand alone, but it’s inevitable not to compare it with Station Eleven once again; that one, while somber in tone and setting, gave many more moments of warmth, and I guess that is more of what I need right now given the absolute horror and cold I am feeling from life right now.