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The Glass Hotel – Emily St. John Mandel

I spent the last several minutes trying to locate a passage in The Glass Hotel that demonstrated both the quality of the writing and the premise of the novel. I came up short. The problem with The Glass Hotel, which is a very good book bordering on great, is at times it feels steeped in metaphor that has no clear meaning the reader can ascribe. Takeaways from the novel will likely vary from reader to reader and I think it may change depending on the age of the reader. The trajectory – and tyranny – of choice lies at the heart of the novel. All the characters make choices and choose to believe or not believe certain truths about themselves. Yet there is something missing to tie it all together, other than the Caiette Hotel, the glass hotel of the title, that tangentially connects them all.

I do not believe in fate, but I do believe a single choice can alter your life and a series of choices defines it. This idea that choices change trajectories and those choices lock our trajectories are pervasive. The idea that there are different countries that one can enter and leave based on certain events or circumstances is a recurring theme. There are countries of sickness, countries of money, countries of poverty, countries of drug addiction, and countries of complicity.

As writing book descriptions for complicated books is one of my least favorite things to do in the world here is how Amazon describes this sprawling novel:

Vincent is the beautiful bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass-and-cedar palace on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. New York financier Jonathan Alkaitis owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together. That same day, a hooded figure scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: ‘Why don’t you swallow broken glass.’ Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company called Neptune-Avramidis, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core. Thirteen years later Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis ship
There is a lot going on in that description, and it leaves out several characters and that the book is centered on the collapse of a Ponzi scheme run by Alkaitis. Also, most of the characters see ghosts. Later, some of those characters become ghosts themselves. For a book that comes in at 301 pages, the story is dense with characters. That is one of the few weaknesses of the novel. The surplus of characters crowds out the “main” characters to the point at times the book feels more like a connected series of vignettes than a novel.

Emily St. John Mandel is a terrific writer and her style draws you in and keeps you interested. Even more than Station Eleven, however, I felt this novel drew from the writing style of David Mitchell and his penchant for multiple callbacks and interwoven characters. Also, one section of The Glass Hotel switches point of view and begins including the reader with “us” and “we”, possibly to draw the reader into a feeling of complicity with the characters. This same technique was used to dazzling effect in Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, one of my favorite novels. It’s a narrative trick that is so specific it left me wondering if it was intended as an homage, especially given that the “we” in question were office workers or if it seeped in unconsciously.

The novel jumps back and forth in time quite a bit so that when it is over the complete trajectory of many of the characters’ lives is clearly seen. There is a heartbreaking fatalistic bend to many of it, but St. John Mandel does not take the stand that destiny is at work. The choices these characters make, the choices that could be considered inevitable based on who they are, set many events in motion but could have been avoided. The concept of Choice is always at the forefront whether it is choosing to act or not act, making a life-altering decision, or choosing what to believe about oneself.

These are big ideas and St. John Mandel uses her characters to drive the point home. Nearly all of them have regrets for the paths they chose, all except Vincent. She remains the purest of the characters and never makes a choice and then regrets it later. She exists on the periphery of the swirl of tragedy while also being one of the centers of the novel. Unfortunately, her story is largely lost amidst so many supporting characters and by the end, I did not feel I knew or understood her that well. This is frustrating and without a clear idea of her arc, the tragedy of her death elicits a shrug rather than tears. I am an easy crier when moved, and when I closed the book my eyes were dry.

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