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The Glass Hotel

March 30, 2020

IMG_3822 (1)I’ve read the new novel by the author of the heartbreakingly brilliant Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel, and found it less brilliant but even more disturbing. Entitled The Glass Hotel, it’s loosely organized around the story of what happens to a group of people who meet once in a hotel in British Columbia. The title must refer to the idea of glass houses, but the impulse of the novel is less kind than her previous one, despite that title reference. The people in this novel look at glass and see mirrors.

St. John Mandel is a wonderful writer, and she brings her characters together in a way that includes everybody in the world around them, even the readers. The characters at the center of the novel are Paul and his younger step-sister Vincent, and as in her previous novel, the stories of the separate characters begin at what seem to be opposite ends of a pattern and are gradually woven closer together until a recognizable picture is revealed.

There are a few overlaps between characters and events from this novel with ones from Station Eleven, as when Vincent imagines
“an alternate reality where there was no Iraq War, for example, or where the terrifying new swine flu in the Republic of Georgia hadn’t been swiftly contained; an alternate world where the Georgia flu blossomed into an unstoppable pandemic and civilization collapsed.”

Ironically, for the novel that is not about a worldwide pandemic but published during one, one of the characters who overlaps with Station Eleven, Leon Prevant’s administrative assistant Miranda, says to him “there’s something almost tedious about disaster….Don’t you find? I mean, at first it’s all dramatic, ‘Oh my god, the economy’s collapsing, there was a run on my bank so my bank ceased to exist over the weekend and got swallowed up by JPMorgan Chase,’ but then that keeps happening, it just keeps collapsing, week after week, and at a certain point…”

Even relatively minor characters are explored in some depth in this novel; a painter named Olivia whose only part in the plot is investing her money in what turns out to be a Ponzi scheme wears a “new trench coat, which she was convinced made her look like the star of her favorite French movie because it’s possible to convince oneself of such things at twenty-four.”

Because my kids are isolated in apartments far away and I’m trying not to envy those whose children are crowded into the house with them, I identified to a ludicrous extent with the mother whose son was late coming in from NYC for a family picnic. “’We were almost starting to worry!’ their mother said with that nervous little laugh that Jonathan had only recently begun to notice. She’d spent the last hour crying in the car while their father paced and smoked cigarettes.” At the end of the picnic when they start to talk about driving him back to the train station she can’t hold back from saying “unless you’d like to stay here tonight, honey, you know there’s always room…”

The theme of the novel is how habitually we don’t look at other people and appreciate how our actions affect their lives. The man in charge of the Ponzi scheme, who lives with Vincent for a while, doesn’t examine what he is doing any more than the people who are in on the scam with him do; they all have ways to rationalize, even after the point where he brings it out in the open and says “look…we all know what we do here” and a few of them realize that his statement “represented the final crossing, or perhaps more accurately, the moment when it was no longer possible to ignore the topography and pretend that the border hadn’t already been crossed.”

One of the people who lost all his savings in the Ponzi scheme (Leon) finds himself living in a place he hadn’t liked to look at before, maybe kind of like the Americans who are just now waking up to the notion that perhaps we should be making sure that workers we consider “essential” should be paid a living wage and covered by health insurance:
“He’d been aware of the shadowland forever, of course. He’d seen its more obvious outposts: shelters fashioned from cardboard under overpasses, tents glimpsed in the bushes alongside expressways, houses with boarded-up doors but a light shiningin an upstairs window. He’d always been vaguely aware of its citizens, people who’d slipped beneath the surface of society, into a territory without comfort or room for error; they hitchhiked on roads with their worldly belongings in backpacks, they collected cans on the streets of cities, they stood on the Strip in Las Vegas wearing T-shirts that said GIRLS TO YOUR ROOM IN 20 MINUTES, they were the girls in the room. He’d seen the shadow country, its outskirts and signs, he’d just never thought he’d have anything to do with it.”

More than just economic equality, though, Leon thinks about what it would be like to wake up in “the country of the sick” and how impossible it is for him to be sure that he is “essentially incorruptible” when all it takes is keeping quiet and pretending not to see certain things in order to keep his options open for a better life.

Wouldn’t it be something if a month of not seeing anyone in person and having time to read novels like The Glass Hotel resulted in more people being able to develop an appreciation for the existence of others they’ve previously overlooked or ignored? I’m not optimistic, however, based on the way the people who still have jobs and are working from home are continuing so many of their recreational activities with colleagues, rather than seizing this opportunity to socialize more with friends they talk to less often and may not see again.


19 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    March 30, 2020 5:07 pm

    I really liked Station Eleven, a bit to my surprise (not usually a fan of such scary fictional scenarios … hey, wait a minute …) and your comments here make me even more keen than I was to read this new one.

    What you say about carrying on with our usual crowds is interesting. I wonder if it’s partly because that’s where the social media / email tracks are already well established. I’ve noticed more than I already did which of my usual circle of friends and colleagues are not on either Facebook or Twitter: I’ve emailed a couple of them but it is definitely going to take more conscious effort not to lose track of them in the midst of all this, with no opportunities for face to face meetings.

    • April 1, 2020 8:33 am

      Yes, where our tracks are well established is where most of us continue to travel. I would think a break in daily routines this big would prompt people to raise their heads and look around them a little more than most of us are doing so far.

  2. March 30, 2020 5:21 pm

    Hmm. I wasn’t planning on reading this bu now I am going to have to consider it.

    • April 1, 2020 8:35 am

      I think you should; I’d be interested to hear what you think about what people are willing to look at in this novel.

  3. March 30, 2020 9:07 pm

    How interesting! I read another review of this book that found it frustrating how it focused primarily on the fallout of economic crisis for well-off white people, and it made me question if I wanted to read it at all. NOW I AM TORN. I always do admire Mandel’s plots — she has so many moving parts and somehow makes them all go together nicely, which is a trick I wish more authors knew.

    • April 1, 2020 8:37 am

      Yes, the way the moving parts come together is nothing short of breathtaking, as usual.
      I think anyone who says this novel focuses primarily on the well-off didn’t actually get much of what it’s saying.

  4. March 31, 2020 4:06 am

    So now we’re even, because I’m still waiting for this one to come out in the UK. Ironically, perhaps, one of my book groups was due to read Station Eleven at the beginning of May. We should perhaps have scheduled it rather earlier!

    • April 1, 2020 8:41 am

      Inevitably we’re even. I’ve found out that the Sebastian Barry is being published in the U.S. on April 21 and I’ve managed to order it from a local bookstore, where they just started taking orders for delivery today (they closed for a bit but then re-opened for orders).
      So many of us should have scheduled things differently around the pandemic. It’s not like we couldn’t see it coming, but as with the characters in this novel, we might have thought it wouldn’t affect us this much.

  5. March 31, 2020 5:29 am

    A really thoughtful plot with recognisable characters, one you’ve got across really well. If I wasn’t trying to avoid dispiriting novels right now I’d be very tempted!

    • April 1, 2020 8:42 am

      I didn’t find it dispiriting in a topical way. In fact, as you can tell from my conclusion, I think it has something to say about trying to live life as usual when life is anything but.

      • April 1, 2020 8:54 am

        ‘Dispiriting’ was probably too strong a word: I’ve been reading a lot of children’s fiction recently with relatively upbeat endings as a way of combating the possibility of any creeping pessimism, but have decided I need to read more widely so have picked up a Wharton novella. (Perhaps the Wharton novella: Ethan Frome, which seems chilling right from the opening chapter!)

  6. March 31, 2020 12:13 pm

    My sister read this and said she wasn’t sure what to think when she was done. I don’t know if she meant that in a good way or a bad way.

    • April 1, 2020 8:43 am

      My experience with this author is that it can take a reader a day or two to think about it and put it all together. There are so many moving parts.

  7. April 1, 2020 5:34 pm

    I finished this last night and I loved it. Not quite as much as a Station Eleven but still enough to probably have it make my best of the year list! I love love love how Mandel captures even bit players with such clarity. I loved her focus on the “shadowlands” here in America and the class consciousness in the story. I find her to be a very empathetic writer. Gah. I haven’t written about it yet but i will soon. You know, it’s interesting how you write of hoping that people take a look around them. For me, I’ve been hoping that people will be still and look inside themselves. Take stock, learn their worth even if they’re not being “productive,” that sort of thing. Maybe we’re talking about two sides of the same coin. I can only speak for myself, but I think I’m learning a lot right now, hopefully that I will carry forward into the other side of this.

    • May 2, 2020 10:05 pm

      I do think it’s two sides of the same coin. I actually got kind of lost in thought and then realized I hadn’t replied to this comment yet! Because I’m older than you are, I think I’m past the age where introspection is important. As a person gets older, I think it’s much more important to think about others.

      • May 3, 2020 8:06 pm

        You may be right about that. I hope that as I age I continue to solidify my sense of self; Lord knows that I am so much stronger than I was in my twenties and thirties.

  8. Jonna permalink
    May 2, 2020 5:11 pm

    Oh, I am looking forward to this one. I loved Station Eleven.

    • May 2, 2020 10:07 pm

      As Laila says, above, I don’t think anyone is loving this one quite as much as Station Eleven, but it does have the great things this author does with bringing all the separate threads together and revealing a pattern at the end.


  1. Book Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (4/5) | Taking On a World of Words

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