Book Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel
Emily St. John Mandel

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Someone has scrawled this disturbing message on the glass wall in the lobby of the Hotel Caiette, a five-star hotel on Vancouver Island. Vincent, a bartender at the hotel, doesn’t understand the message, but she has an idea who wrote it.

The staff quickly covers the words before Jonathan Alkaitis, the hotel’s owner and a wealthy investor, arrives, and Jonathan never learns the message was intended for him. When Vincent serves him a drink and they strike up a flirtatious conversation, she sees an opportunity and takes it. She walks out on her job and into the “kingdom of money,” living with Jonathan as his trophy wife.

Jonathan’s wealth gives Vincent “the freedom to stop thinking about money,” but the source of his wealth is a Ponzi scheme that ultimately sends him and his asset managers to prison. That’s not a spoiler. It’s the premise of an excellent story about greed, naïve and vulnerable investors and ultimately, the downfall of a mastermind who knew what he was doing but couldn’t resist the opportunity.

Set in New York and Vancouver, the story follows Jonathan, Vincent, his team and an assortment of investors, both before and after the collapse. In prison, Jonathan contemplates a parallel life outside of prison. He’s plagued by ghostly visions that pick at his conscience. Vincent reinvents herself and goes under the radar, choosing a life that’s drastically different. And investors, many of whom have lost their life savings, enter the “country of the cheated.”

Through her characters, the author studies the idea of morality as the fund managers, who never actually invested their clients’ money, either face up to or rationalize their involvement in massive theft. She shows the incongruity of how some led their everyday lives with the idea of knowing they were stealing but trying to be a good people “around the margins of the bad.”

A separate point looks at the moment Oskar Novak, part of the investment team, consciously decides to continue with the fraud. He later backpedals in court, saying “It’s possible to both know and not know something.” Likewise for Vincent, who suspects something, but prefers to look away.

In addition, Mandel shows how each of her characters acts when they face opportunity, related to the fund and in their own relationships. Jonathan, his employees and some inside investors seize the chance to take advantage. On the other side are investors like shipping executive Leon Prevant who is about to be laid off and a once-promising artist. Both and many other vulnerable investors lose their life savings.

There are no real main characters in The Glass Hotel. It’s more a story of what happens to a group of people and how the collapse of the fund affects them. But Mandel looks at relationships, particularly between Vincent and her half-brother, Paul and their semi-connected lives. This relationship is also one of opportunity, tying it to the author’s theme.

I recommend The Glass Hotel to readers who like stories in which characters face a crumbling of life as they knew it. Throw in a lot of moral decisions and you come up with an engrossing read.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

28 thoughts on “Book Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

    1. Hi Priscilla – I really enjoyed reading Station Eleven, which is very different from The Glass Hotel. I’m still getting to know the author, but it seems as if she likes to take risks and be different. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  1. Well, in a lot of post-modern novels we don’t have a protagonist. We like this. We want to read a novel from a standpoint of distance and not one of identification and emotions. We like it when a text makes us think. Of course, there is a philosophical idea behind not having a main character. It’s an illusion that one person can make a difference – even in the worlds of texts.
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. Thank you, Klausbernd, for reading my post and commenting so thoughtfully. I also like the concept of no central character – It gives the reader a completely different perspective. Hope you are having a great weekend!

    1. Yes, Noelle. It was a little like the Bernie Madoff scheme, but obviously with changes. Thanks for the visit – hope you are doing well and that we are headed for some cooler weather!

  2. In a way this sounds like a true story, Barb. I like books that show how events impact a lot of different characters, but I often a hard time empathizing with the wheelers and dealers, even when they take the big fall. They ruin so many lives. Thanks for sharing your review. Sounds like an interesting read. 🙂

    1. Hi Diana – I agree with you – very much like the Bernie Madoff story. The anger people felt then was intense and the author was likely influenced by that story. So much deception! Thanks for the visit 🙂

      1. Yeah, I have not been able to keep up with Stuff Jeff Reads anymore. Too much going on. But I posted on the Stub Collection recently and have some more to post there soon. I think one blog is enough for me right now 😉

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