Book review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

the glass hotel emily st john mandel coverEmily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven imagined a pandemic and its aftermath, asking what could endure and what we would value, if we survived. It was such an intricate and sensitive book it was always going to be a hard act to follow.

In The Glass Hotel Mandel takes on the financial crisis of 2008. The story revolves around a Bernie Madoff-type Ponzi scheme, which robs many investors of their life savings. (She says in the afterword to the novel that she drew on Madoff’s story for the details of the scheme, but not the character of its creator, Jonathan Alkaitis).

The story is not told in a linear fashion but spins out from Alkaitis drawing on several different characters who are tangentially connected to him – investors, workers, friends, lovers. It begins with two 1990s slackers, Vincent and her half-brother Paul, who are drifting after college and both end up working at the glass hotel of the title, which is owned by Alkaitis.

The narrative goes some way to explaining his charisma and the complexities of a man who was deceiving himself as well as all those around him. He is not an obvious showman but appears empathetic to those he draws in. There is one scene where he persuades a shipping executive to invest by professing fascination with his work, and showing an understanding of the complexity of the world’s supply chains which the man finds gratifying.

The motif of the shipping lines, linking separate lives across the globe, mirrors the story with its disconnected characters, although The Glass Hotel doesn’t go so far as to consider the broader fallout of the crisis, confining itself largely to those directly connected to Alkaitis. (Of course the shipping lines are newly fascinating to us all, now the problems of logistics and procurement and international supply chains are no longer a niche technical issue but are daily in the headlines.)

The writing was good, with some nice observations on the life of the rich, and it was an enjoyable read at the time, but when I got to the end I wondered what it had all been for. It didn’t have the pace and energy or detail of a financial thriller but nor did it give me the feeling of absorption I’d want from a literary novel. I didn’t come away thinking I’d learnt anything new, or grappled with any big ideas, or become engaged in the story.

I wanted to love this book the way I loved Station Eleven but I have to admit I was underwhelmed.

I received a copy of The Glass Hotel from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Glass Hotel on Goodreads

Marcie McCauley has written an interesting piece about the recurring themes and characters in St. John Mandel’s novels for Chicago Review of Books.

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. It’s hard not to want “another Station Eleven”, isn’t it. There’s something magical about that troupe of musicians wandering the wilderness and trying to make sense of the world.

    But I think that, in some ways, this novel could be a bookend for that one (kinda like Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam books, which are connected but not proper sequels), two different ways of looking at excess and corruption, recovery and decimation.

    From a marketing perspective, I’m not sure that it did this new novel any favour to have the Madoff-matters so central to the story, because I feel like it reduces the story somehow, like if we had all thought we were supposed to pay attention to just ONE of those musicians in the travelling Station Eleven troupe, I’m not sure it’d’ve been so satisfying either?

    Sorry for the long comment, but as you know (thanks very kindly for linking to my review), I’ve spent a lot of reading hours with Mandel’s fiction in recent months and have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about her choices. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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