The Reverberations of 2008 

Located on the northernmost tip of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island is an upcoming destination, Hotel Caiette. Obscured by nature, it is the perfect getaway from the pandemonium of city life, which is perhaps one of the primary reasons why prominent and wealthy investor Jonathan Alkaitis have commissioned the hotel’s construction. It is his reprieve from the frenzied life tempo of New York City. Hotel Caiette and its promise of obscurity is the jump off point for Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel’s newest novel, The Glass Hotel.

Hotel Caiette was your typical out-of-way destination – tranquil, idyllic, and obscure. A day before the owner’s scheduled visit, the domestic life at the hotel was disrupted when one of the hotel’s lobby windows was vandalized. A visiting shipping executive, Leo Preyant, the first one to read the cryptic message, unsettled by the words. The message – “Why don’t you swallow broken glass” – baffled the denizens of the hotel and no one had an iota as to who the acid marker inscription was written for. Walter, the night manager, had no inkling as to who the perpetrator was until suspicions turned towards Paul, the hotel’s newest employee.

Paul is the estranged half-brother of the hotel’s bartender, Vincent. Vincent, named after American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, is also the narrative’s primary heroine. A former delinquent who once pursued finance at the University of Toronto, Paul was fired from his job. Before Alkaitis could read the inscription, the cryptic message was erased and everything and everyone assumed their normal roles. During Alkaitis’ stay, he flirted with Vincent. He left her a hefty one-hundred-dollar tip and his business card. Without any preambles, Vincent abruptly quit her job at Hotel Caiette.

“Give me quiet, he thought, give me forests and ocean and no roads. Give me the walk to the village through the woods in summer, give me the sound of wind in cedar branches, give me mist rising over the water, give me the view of green branches from my bathtub in the mornings. Give me a place with no people in it, because I will never fully trust another person again.”

~ Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel

The mystery of Vincent’s sudden departure achieved a clarity a year later. Hotel Caiette’s night manager, Walter, uncovered the whereabouts of the hotel’s former bartender when he saw a picture taken of Vincent alongside Jonathan while attending a charity gala. The story started unraveling after Vincent left her previous job. She formed a relationship with Jonathan and was jetted off to Connecticut to live a luxurious life in her husband’s opulent estate. However, Jonathan and Vincent were not married but they were living their lives as husband and wife.

However, The Glass Hotel doesn’t reduce itself into a mere romantic story or a summer love affair. Just when Vincent’s new life was taking a comfortable and assuring tempo, it was yet again disrupted when a scandal erupted in New York City’s corporate world which led to Jonathan’s arrest. In light of the global market crash of 2008, the secret behind Jonathan’s investment success was slowly unveiled. After several investigations, it was revealed that Jonathan is a con artist and that his success as an investor is a veneer that hides a Ponzi scheme. As Jonathan fell from grace, he inevitably dragged several fortunes along with him.

Over the course of history, men with wicked intent have repeatedly defrauded many a gullible but willing investor. Their promises of astronomical returns have conned unsuspecting victims into investing their lifetime savings to their investment schemes. They siphoned money from their trusting victims. These Ponzi schemes, like the one masterminded by Bernie Madoff are still prevalent in the contemporary as many opportunists still prey on people who are looking to earn from their savings. Unfortunately, the ones who usually bear the losses are the ones who were deceived.

Emily St. John Mandel did a commendable job of portraying a Ponzi scheme. It all starts with a slick talking and cunning operator with some trading experience. He manages to convince his affluent friends to invest in him, with promises of huge returns. Some are privy to the schemes but choose to keep mum because the cheques keep coming in. Words get around as the initial investors convince their friends to jump into the bandwagon. The appealing scheme snowballed as more prospective investors poured their lifetime savings into what they hope would be a great investment. Contrary to their expectations, the investors’ monies were not invested and were not generating any return.

“Painting was something that had grabbed hold of her for a while, decades, but now it had let go and she had no further interest in it, or it had no further interest in her. All things end, she’d told herself, there was always going to be a last painting, but if she wasn’t a painter, what was she? It was a troubling question.”

~ Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel

The scheme operated smoothly until the economy crashed, revealing that there were no underlying investments generating actual returns. Rather than being invested, the investors’ monies were used to pay the big returns to the initial investors. Insatiable greed was the backbone of the operations. The investors’ monies were used to support Jonathan’s lavish lifestyle. The crash proved fatal. It left many unemployed. Many ordinary investors were left bankrupt as Jonathan doesn’t possess the cash to pay them back. It was disheartening to read how their audible cries and pleas fell to deaf ears. Unfortunately, there were some who were not able to bear the cross and took their own lives.

Whilst the Ponzi scheme took the limelight, the novel also explored several subjects. Juxtaposed on the novel’s main theme is a warm layer that navigated the story of two siblings who were, for years, estranged. During a pivotal moment in their lives, their paths converged. Paul was trying to rebuild his life after dealing with addiction and being in and out of rehabilitation centers. He was also trying to overcome his failure of achieving his lifelong dream of becoming a composer. Vincent, on the other hand, was reeling from the recent death of her mother.

The story unfolded over nearly two decades and goes back and forth from one period to another. This, however, made the narrative murky. As the narrative weaves in and out of different perspectives, the story loses its focus and gets confusing. The transitions were abrupt. The story diverged when it shifted from the obscurity of Hotel Caiette to the tumultuous world of New York City. Rather than a cohesive and whole story, The Glass Hotel ended up like patches of short stories woven together to come up with one story. The tapestry, however, was disjointed and looked abstract, a collision of grand and ambitious themes that never seemed to fit each other.

The muddled narrative made it a challenge establishing a connection with the primary characters. It was lamentable that Paul’s positive story of redemption was drowned by the exploration of the Ponzi scheme. The narrative lacked a prominent voice and Vincent, at times, felt like a spectator to everything that was happening around her. The story’s saving grace was St. John Mandel’s storytelling. It held the sketchy parts together. St. John Mandel wrote elegantly and smoothly, managing to paint an atmospheric and vivid setting. Had it not been for the confusing structure and the lack of voice, the narrative would have flourished.

“I switch on the camera as I hear the thunder, and I record the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, lightning flashing over the roiling ocean. In a storm, the waves are like mountains. Cold rain in my face and I know it’s on the lens but this, too, will be beautiful, the blurring and the raindrops.”

~ Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel

The Glass Hotel is a promising narrative that highlighted the repercussions of the wicked actions of opportunists and conmen. The novel is also an abstract of missed opportunities. The opportunity to create an impactful and powerful story was lost in the confusing structure and the disjointed plot. The Glass Hotel felt less like a cohesive story and more of a tableau of life struggles, experiences and lessons of a score of different characters. There was, however, no single prominent voice as all storylines were mashed together with no real underlying purpose.

Despite the blunders, St. John Mandel’s exquisite storytelling pulls through. It possesses a dreamlike quality that gave the novel an atmospheric landscape. The ambition of The Glass Hotel is commendable but it the story never cohered.

Ratings

56%

Characters (30%) – 13%
Plot (30%) – 18%
Writing (25%) – 16%
Overall Impact (15%) – 9%

I have never heard of Emily St. John Mandel until early 2020 when I was researching for books to include in my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To List. The book cover’s mysterious and foggy setting appealed to me. I initially thought it was a mystery novel, hence, I added it to my 2020 most anticipated releases list. I was lucky enough to purchase a copy of the book despite the restrictions brought about by the pandemic. As it was my first St. John Mandel novel, I didn’t have much of an expectation going into the story. However, I was looking forward to being pleasantly surprised. To some extent, I was pleasantly surprised. The Glass Hotel had a promising premise. However, as the story moved forward, it got more confusing, and frustrating. The perspective abruptly changed, and the transitions were ill-timed, making it a challenge understanding where the story is headed to. The novel lost focus as it tried to deal with different unrelated subjects. The titular glass hotel was merely a veneer as it was forgotten as soon as the story shifted to New York City. In the end, the narrative’s impact was ephemeral.

Book Specs

Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 201
Genre: Mystery, Psychological Fiction

Synopsis

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caitte, a five-star hotel 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. Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for Neptune-Avramidis, reads the words and orders a drink to calm down. Alkaitis, the owner of the hotel and a wealthy investment manager, arrives too late to read the thread, never knowing it was intended for him. He leaves Vincent a hundred-dollar tip along with his business card, and a year later they are living together as husband and wife.

High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. He holds the life savings of an artist named Olivia Collins, the fortunes of a Saudi prince and his extended family, and countless retirement funds, including Leon Prevant’s. The collapse of the financial empire is as swift as it is devastating, obliterating fortunes and lives, while Vincent walks away into the night. Until, years later, she steps aboard a Neptune-Avramidis vessel, the Neptune Cumberland, and disappears from the ship between ports of call.

In this captivating story of crisis and survival, Emily St. John Mandel takes readers through often hidden landscapes: campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping, service in luxury hotels, and life in a federal prison. Rife with unexpected beauty, The Glass Hotel is a captivating portrait of greed and guilt, love and delusion, ghosts and unintended consequences, and the infinite ways we search for meaning  in our lives.

About the Author

Emily St. John Mandel was born in 1979 in Merville, British Columbia, Canada.

When she was ten-years old, she and her family moved to Denman Island off the west coast of British Columbia. She was home-schooled until she was 15-years old. At the age of 18, she left her high school to study contemporary dance at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. She also lived briefly in Montreal before finally relocating to New York City where she currently resides with her husband, playwright and executive recruiter Kevin Mandel, and their daughter.

St. John Mandel’s literary career took off with the publication of her debut novel, Last Night in Montreal, in 2009 and was quickly succeeded by The Singer’s Gun in 2010. However, it was her fourth novel, Station Eleven, published in 2014, that earned her critical success. It won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award and was shortlisted for the 2015 National Book Award. It was also a finalist for the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and a nominee for the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her latest work, The Glass Hotel, was published in 2020. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Giller Prize.