Review: ‘The Glass Hotel’ a tragic tale for the times

Glass Hotel

“The Glass Hotel,” Alfred A. Knopf, by Emily St. John Mandel

How does one follow up a National Book Award nominee? With something completely different, of course.

Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel is more grounded in reality and smaller in scope than “Station Eleven,” which imagined a theater troupe traveling across America 15 years after a mysterious flu killed most of the world’s population. (That book is being talked about again because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

“The Glass Hotel” tells the story of Vincent, a young woman whose fate we know from the first sentence — “Begin at the end: plummeting down the side of the ship…” — but it’s the title that inspires the novel’s central theme. “The Glass Hotel” is a more descriptive name for “The Hotel Caiette,” an isolated establishment on the northern end of Vancouver Island. Vincent moves there with her mother as a teenager, wandering the woods and eventually working as the hotel bartender. The clientele pay top dollar to stay in this remote and luxurious place, “a glass-and-cedar palace at twilight” where, as general manager Raphael says to a prospective employee, “there’s a sense of being outside of time and space.”

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An ephemeral quality permeates the novel. Many of the characters are haunted and most of the story is told in flashbacks to various times in Vincent’s life. As Mandel writes in the mind of Vincent: “It is possible to leave so much out of any given story.” The thrill of “The Glass Hotel” is that the pieces do eventually connect, from Vancouver to the glittering skyscrapers of New York.

Characters are introduced at different times and collide throughout the novel to complete a portrait of Vincent’s life and sketch their own stories too. There’s Jonathan, an investor whom Vincent seduces and lives with as a trophy wife back in New York; Vincent’s brother, Paul, whose journey takes him from heroin addiction to an artistic career kick-started by using his sister’s personal videos without permission; and Walter, who never leaves the hotel, working as the property’s caretaker for a decade after it closes.

There are no heroes here and only a couple characters who inspire much sympathy, but the unique structure keeps you turning the pages. At times, you’ll find yourself flipping back to a chapter heading to find out if what you’re reading happened in 1999 or 2004, but it’s a thrill when the puzzle pieces start to fit together. Or, as Paul expresses it near the end: “The smallness of the world never ceases to amaze me.”

The final chapter is haunting, taking readers full circle to those words spoken by Raphael about time and space ceasing to exist. It’s a sense readers will enjoy as well when they lose themselves in Mandel’s novel.

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