Emily St. John Mandel’s newest book, The Glass Hotel, is not her most topical. In 2014, the Canadian author published Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic tale set in an America ravaged by the after-effects of a deadly virus—a story a bit too on the nose today.
But The Glass Hotel, despite being set in the recent past as opposed to the not-too-distant future, still transports readers elsewhere. Set over more than 20 years, the novel follows half a dozen characters to whom life deals out blows or chances at happiness—or whatever they’re willing to settle for.
While it’s an expansive ensemble, The Glass Hotel is at its most compelling when centered with Vincent, who serves as a somewhat chilly yet fascinating protagonist. She’s a young woman haunted by early tragedy in life, who has a passion for filming the random moments of beauty she encounters in the world.
It’s Vincent’s path—from the poor woods of Canada to Manhattan high life to a mysterious end—that connects the most with other characters. The titular Vancouver Island hotel where things begin features Vincent behind the lobby bar, her semi-estranged half-brother Paul working as night manager and Jonathan Alkaitis, the hotel owner who also runs a billion-dollar investment fund, paying a stay. After an unexplained moment of vandalism gets Paul fired, Vincent meets Jonathan, who is happy to bring her into his world.
The end of Vincent and Jonathan’s time together corresponds with the 2008 economic crisis, which also corresponds with the same time that Jonathan’s investment empire is revealed to be a complete scam. Mandel makes it clear in the end notes that the Madoff scandal was a key inspiration for Jonathan’s plotline, and one of the novel’s weakest points is how much she draws upon real life for this. The chapters featuring Jonathan’s employees grouped together as a collective “us,” however, are fascinating portraits of how decent people might get caught up in massive criminal action that ruins countless lives.
“Countless” is important here, because Jonathan’s Ponzi scheme and its repercussions have a seemingly limitless impact on all of the characters. What Mandel crafts here is the literary equivalent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, but not all of the connections are drawn sharply, with many characters only just brushing against each other as they sprint or stagger towards the finish line. The rough edges of these connections keep them from feeling too pat, instead creating a world where coincidence is real. But also real is the fact that the world is small, and humans will run across each other for the most unexpected of reasons.
Some characters feel relatively underdrawn; Paul, as one major example, feels set up at the beginning to play a much bigger part in the narrative, but he drifts in and out almost at random, at times in frustrating ways. But even in their darkest moments, each one still maintains an underlying humanity that draws out sympathy.
The Glass Hotel is a challenging novel to discuss with digging into crucial plot developments, but what remains haunting about it is the way it transforms familiar environments into expansive worlds. Mandel’s prose is clean and richly detailed, and she seems to know just the right amount of depth to include in each moment, whether it be an entire chapter devoted to Vincent’s daily routine as a kept woman or a few pages that encapsulate an entire decade of one middle-aged couple’s change in circumstances.
It’s far from an optimistic text, but its realism is a more soothing balm at times. Pragmatic is perhaps the word, reflecting its most prominent character. Vincent’s life changes dramatically over the course of the book, but the core image Mandel presents of her is that of a young woman clenching a camera and loving the beauty she sees through the lens.
There’s a deep underlying sadness to The Glass Hotel as a whole, a sense of reflecting on how the end of things is always inevitable. But those emotions come with an accompanying gratitude; while nothing lasts, it was at least with us for a time.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts and a repository of X-Files trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.