- - Monday, March 23, 2020

Near the beginning of “The Glass Hotel” Emily St. John Mandel introduces Paul, who is studying finance at the University of Toronto. He’d prefer to study musical composition, but “His mother was unwilling to entertain the idea of an impractical degree, for which after several expensive rounds of rehab he couldn’t easily blame her.”

Problem is he finds finance to be “fatally uninteresting.” Another problem is he’s far from free of his drug habit.

His half-sister is “a reserved put-together person” in Paul’s view. Yet despite intelligence and beauty she has “never had a clear vision of what she wanted her life to look like.” All she knew was that “she wanted to be swept up, to be plucked from the crowd.” 

Jonathan Alkaitis does the sweeping when he visits the luxury hotel in the Canadian wilderness where Vincent works. He’s a super-wealthy Wall Street financier, and he whisks her off to New York. 

As his wife Vincent lives in a different world — urban rather than wilderness, the world of wealth rather than the world of working to pay the rent. “Maybe this could be enough. Maybe not everyone needs to have a specific ambition,” she reflects.

She doesn’t love Jonathan, who is 34 years older than she is, but she is the perfect partner, which he appreciates as much as she enjoys the lifestyle he provides — until he doesn’t. He’s built his business on a criminal plan and eventually the whole structure tumbles.

Lots of people tumble with it. Guys who work for him obviously, but also clients like Leon, a shipping executive he recruited in the hotel where Vincent worked, and his old friend Olivia, who at 75 is left without an income.  

The stories of these and other characters are loosely interconnected. This is not easy to see at first because the brief and mysterious introduction to Vincent is quickly eclipsed by the account of Paul’s life in Toronto. This suggests he will be center stage of the novel, and perhaps its focus will be youthful angst.

But while Paul has his turn in the limelight, he is followed by several others. Vincent is the most significant, but there’s also Leon and Olivia and Ella Kaspersky, who has long suspected that Jonathan’s success in the stock market is too good to be legal. 

The switch from character to character is one of several elements that gives the impression that this novel is longer than its 300 pages. Another is the temporal movement. For example, the brief opening chapter about Vincent is set in 2018, but then the second chapter jumps back to Paul in 1994 and 1999. Subsequent sections are set at various dates between, and one late chapter even takes us to a cocktail party in 2029.

In an early 1999 scene Paul, Vincent and friends are wondering where to celebrate New Year’s Eve, and whether the millennium will spell the end of civilization. Memories of Y2K fears are now the subject of jokes, but this reminder of past fears is one of many scary threads in the rich fabric of this novel about people whose lives often seem fated. 

As the scattered pieces of their tales come together, it’s clear that most are meandering rather than following a defined path. Their wanderings become rather mesmerizing and more than a little worrying. Sure enough, no good comes to most of them. Others, however, succeed in a way or for a time, while yet others end up in odd, yet not unhappy, spots.  

Emily St. John Mandel braids her characters’ histories deftly, letting each star as the center of their own tales so in turn each grabs her readers’ attention. She treats Jonathan Alkaitis differently, exposing little of him except that he is a genial and generous billionaire. This makes him a mystery man, who never quite fades from the reader’s mind until the denouement, when his role in the web of connections becomes dramatically clear.

The author is equally adept at evoking places, most particularly their size. The huge luxury hotel of the title is in the vast wilderness of western Canada, accessible only by boat. Its remoteness adds to eeriness of the novel, as do the dark streets of Toronto that Paul wanders in search of entertainment. The busy avenues and spiky skyscrapers of Manhattan are vivid and exciting, but in their own way slightly scary and alien. 

This well-written novel is never less than intriguing. Its lost characters compel attention, as does its sobering picture of early-21st century life. 

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

• • •


By Emily St. John Mandel

Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages 

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