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Book Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (4/5)

4 Aug

I gave my reading buddy a short list of books for this time around and from that she picked Mandel’s latest, The Glass Hotel. I’ve read two Mandel books before and had mixed feelings so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this one. A friend of my husband gave this book a solid review so I figured I should go in open-minded.

Cover image via Amazon

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Other books by Mandel reviewed on this blog:
Station Eleven (and Book Club Reflection, and another Book Club Reflection, and meeting the author)
The Lola Quartet

Summary from Amazon:

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. When the financial empire collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan’s wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: a woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container ship between ports of call.

I liked 95% of this book. The ending was a bit much for me. I’ll get to that later. The majority of this book was lovely. I adored the characters. I cared about them. I understood how their lives interacted and what was important to them. It was lyrical in Mandel’s style. It incorporated her knowledge about art and her love of Canada in a great way. I liked how she drifted across time and space. And I was always curious about the Glass Hotel.

I felt the characters were real. Vincent came from a very upsetting background and her drifting through life seemed realistic to me. I thought Mandel went into the psychology of those involved in the Ponzi really well. Those chapters made me almost feel bad for the people involved until I remembered how much they ruined the lives of the investors. It helped me understand the complexities of white-collar crime and what Jonathan was involved in.

Vincent was my favorite character. She was a chameleon and I loved seeing the different parts of her life. We see her on her own, working as a bartender in her hometown, and then it seems like within seconds she’s been whisked away to a life of luxury that’s almost impossible to imagine. Seeing her return to suddenly to bartending and cooking was a bit shocking, but it made sense for her. I never doubted it for a second.

Oddly, Paul was the most relatable person in the story for me. I think it was his anxiety. I can’t say I’ve been in situations like he has, (stealing intellectual property, being indirectly responsible for a death), but his anxious responses resonated with me. He was constantly afraid of being ousted as a fraud, being blamed for something gone wrong. I constantly fight those fears. I understood how debilitating they can be.

Me and Mandel

Vincent’s time in New York was my favorite. I thought it was very interesting to hear how she blended into Jonathan’s world and how much of an imposter she felt like when she did it. What a strange place to find yourself plucked from nothing and thrust into such a different world. I can’t imagine a world where money is so expendable and where things are readily available in that way.

The ending of the book bothered me. I’m going to talk about it so skip this paragraph if you don’t want spoilers. I think I just didn’t get it. I’ll say that I don’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural so that might be why the ending wasn’t for me. I didn’t like that there was a spectral plane where the dead walked around, visiting each other and the living. I didn’t understand how Paul and Jonathan could be in tune with that plane and no one else. For me, it took a very solid, bound-to-reality book, and gave it an other-worldly feel right at the end and it threw me off.

I think the characters were always looking for somewhere they felt safe. For Vincent, I think it was Caiette which is why she returned there to bartend. Jonathan took her away and she didn’t feel safe again. Turning to the ocean was the closest she could come to her ocean-side home. Jonathan felt safe in money and he lied to keep himself surrounded by it. Paul never felt safe. Seeking that sense of safety drove the characters to do what they did, be it good or bad.

Writer’s Takeaway: In the Mandel books I’ve read, the characters are often seeking something they can’t describe. I think this makes for a very dream-like feeling to a book, where there’s something ephemeral, just out of reach. Mandel has a way of describing their search for that thing in a way that never feels lost; it’s always purposeful.

I enjoyed this book up until the very end. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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