The smallness of the world never ceases to amaze me. A character says at the end of the book. Like a wide net cast over the ocean, the novel, at the onset, feels all over the place, and all over time, introducing characters at random moments in their lives from the 90s (one even much earlier) to a decade later and further out into the future. Until, slowly, the author pulls back the net and the world becomes tremendously small. Lives connected in surprising ways, and in the case of the driving narrative of this book, connected by a Ponzi scheme that collapsed in 2008.
But rather than focus solely on the perpetrator of the scam, Jonathan Alkaitis, the story goes in a nonlinear fashion telling stories of characters farther out from the center of the web of lies that Jonathan Alkaitis built. We meet Vincent and Paul, sister and brother at the beginning. Walter and Raphael working at a remote luxury hotel Caiette. Leon Prevant from the shipping industry staying at the Hotel Caiette. A brief mention of Ella Kaspersky, a minor character who will prove to be an important one later on. Olivia Collins, whose life we see from the late 50s and then jumping forward to 2008. A Saudi prince, Faisal and her girlfriend, Mirella, who became Vincent’s friend during her time in the “kingdom of money.”
A side note, which I have to address—and one that disoriented me at the beginning: Vincent is a woman, which is a strange name for a woman. Her mother named her after the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in the book.
There are many other characters. The office chorus themselves are a chockfull of names that worked under Jonathan Alkaitis’ asset management (read: Ponzi scheme) company. Their lives written in broad strokes, but nonetheless real.
Anyone who watches (and loves) the TV series This is Us will find the book fascinating the way it connects these different characters and timelines into one coherent story. Actually, anyone who loves stories about different characters pulled together by circumstances or by life itself will love this book. What seems tangential in someone's life, becomes a central matter in another character. Mistakes in the past, become ghosts in the present. A whole life savings for some people, a small drop in the ocean in someone's multi-billion dollar scam. The characters are the heroes (or anti-heroes) of their own stories, but a footnote in someone else's. Such is life.
When I think about this book, I think not only of This is Us, but also of movies like Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros. They have that hypnotic quality of drawing you in to each of the lives of the characters, then zooming out and letting you see the bigger picture that connects them all.
I loved a particular moment in this book when Olivia Collins saw two young women walking—but we readers know that these two were Vincent and Mirella. It was such a small moment from Olivia’s chapter in the book, but observant readers know that there was a similar scene a few pages before where Vincent and Mirella were out walking.
This is what’s immensely pleasurable you get in reading. You get to be omnipresent. You get to see the underlying thread that connects life, that connects characters. You can even imagine alternate realities or universes, the way the author connects this book to her last one, the excellent, excellent Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic story about a world decimated by Georgian flu, not unlike the fear that’s spreading now with COVID-19. (See the jump from fiction to reality?)
In fact, in the acknowledgement of this book, St. John Mandel mentions that the Ponzi scheme narrative is modeled after the infamous Bernard Madoff, the so-called Wizard of Lies. And although the Ponzi scheme lies at the center of the story—and how everyone is ultimately affected by it, the beating hearts of the novel is with each of the characters.
It takes focus to read this book, because there are so many details even in one sentence or paragraph alone. The author writes her characters the way a painter does in her painting: with slow but steady brushstrokes, with every detail etched and important for now or for later reference. Like a painting with many layers, the book reveals more the deeper you go into the story. And in the end, a devastating piece of art that lingers more for the things implied and the things left unsaid.