‘The Glass Hotel’ by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 4 stars

The cast of characters in The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel is vast. Almost all of them have one thing in common – they have met Jonathan Alkaitis at some point in time, which irreversibly changed their lives. The story is told from various points of view and goes back and forward in time, similar to Station Eleven. Although the narration is initially not thorough enough, the novel becomes consistently more enveloping and gripping, as the characters dwell on their tribulations and their connection with one another is established.

In 1999, Paul was at the University of Toronto studying Finance. He would have preferred to major in musical composition, but after several years in rehab, his mother wanted him to study for a degree that offered more prospects. He once met a group of people in a band at a dance club. He was smitten by the young woman in the group, Annika, and offered them some pills. The heart of one of them, Charlie, stopped and he died on the dance floor. That still haunted Paul.

Sometime after, Paul decided to go look for his half-sister, Vincent. Her mother had died when she was 13 years old, reason why she went to live with their aunt for a few years. He didn’t hate her. However, he felt some resentment, since their father had left his mother shortly before Vincent was born.

In 2005, Vincent is a bartender at Hotel Caiette, where one night someone writes on the windowed wall “Why don’t you swallow broken glass”. The night manager, Walter, believes Paul, who is also working there as a houseman, to be the culprit and asks him to leave the hotel. The same night, Jonathan Alkaitis, a New York financier, arrives at the hotel for another stay. He and his deceased wife fell in love there, so he bought the hotel and leased it to a management company. While there, he meets Leon Prevant, a shipping executive, and Vincent.

Jonathan Alkaitis offers Vincent one hundred dollars and proposes that they go live together as if they were married. She accepts and moves with him to New York, as she longs for a better life. She didn’t go to university, because she believed that, by the end, she would only have a huge debt without the guarantee of a good job. She isn’t totally at ease with her decision to live with Alkaitis. She is great at pretending, though.

“What kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money.”

The characters are interesting from the outset. However, as the points of view keep changing and there are huge jumps in time between chapters, at first, it seems like everything is happening too fast, with some events just being mentioned in passing. Emily St. John Mandel managed to sort this issue out with ease. Some of the plot points skimmed through previously are further explored in subsequent chapters from the perspectives of the characters that they were more significant to and that were not mere observers, gaining a new life. The story becomes more enveloping, despite jumping back and forward in time.

The dialogues are another fundamental element for the riveting effect of The Glass Hotel. They enrich the characters, even those we know close to nothing about. Many of the characters in the story are only present on certain occasions, which mimics the many people we meet along the way and who don’t become close to us. Their interactions help their tribulations to be vivid and the narration to feel effortless, while the focus of the book constantly changes.

The novel ends in the same year as the first chapter is set in – December 2018. By starting the book with two cryptic pages, Emily St. John Mandel manages to arouse curiosity. Who is that person aboard the Neptune Cumberland amidst a storm? Before the very last chapter readers already know the answer. The pieces of the puzzle are almost all in place. No major secrets are saved for last. Instead, there are musings about what was and what could have been, which is slightly anticlimactic, despite The Glass Hotel constantly exploring the regrets and the effects that past occurrences have in the lives of the characters.


4 thoughts on “‘The Glass Hotel’ by Emily St. John Mandel

  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

    I loved this book, almost as much as Station Eleven. Initially (pre-publication) I was skeptical that it would hold my interest, as the subject didn’t really strike me as terribly interesting and I didn’t expect that Mandel could do another novel that approached Eleven in quality. Was I wrong! I wonder if her next novel (due out in March, believe) will continue the streak?
    All the structural devices that you note — the time shifts, incomplete dialogue and so on — really served to heightened the suspense and to keep the reader (at least this one) glued to the page.
    Did you notice that some of the minor supporting characters were also in Station Eleven? Miranda for sure and I also think Leon Prevant.
    Great review, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susana_S_F says:

      Thank you!
      I read Station Eleven more than six years ago. Although I don’t remember many details about it anymore, I have the feeling that I liked it a bit more than The Glass Hotel.
      Miranda sounded familiar! She was one of my favourite characters in Station Eleven.


      • Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

        I loved Miranda (think she was a lot of people’s favorites). Before I read Glass Hotel, one of the professional reviewers mentioned there was some overlap in a couple of the characters, so I was on alert for this. Miranda I remember, Leon Prevant I did not (he was little more than a walk-on) & had to “cheat” with goggle.
        Have you had a chance to see the mini series based on Eleven? I thought the first episodes were great but that it grew considerably weaker towards the end (there were a few plot changes).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Susana_S_F says:

        I haven’t watched the mini series yet. It’s not available on HBO’s current streaming service in Portugal yet. We will only have access to HBO Max next month.

        Liked by 1 person

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