A college student on the verge of dropping out. His half-sister who’s haunted by a tragic drowning. A man of dizzying wealth and charm. A painter who lived the bohemian life in late 1950’s New York. A man whose life revolves around shipping lines. These characters’ lives intersect through a novel that reads like ripples in a still pond: Emily St. John Mandel’s quietly exhilarating new novel, The Glass Hotel.
The Glass Hotel opens in a series of fragments; vignettes of real life and memory as someone falls off the side of a ship. The jarring, flipping-through-channels experience of reading this opening gradually leads us to expanding vignettes of the life of Vincent, a young bartender who seems to live outside her life, plagued with memories of her mother (who disappeared when Vincent was 13) and preoccupied with recording mundane moments of her day-to-day life.
The world begins to change for Vincent—and the people surrounding her, whether they intersect hers or remain circling the tangents—when she encounters Jonathan Alkaitis, an asset management bigwig and owner of the hotel she and her half-brother Paul worked in 2005. She agrees to enter a “contract” with him, where she enters what she calls the “kingdom of money,” and had a first-row seat to a financial tragedy that wreaked havoc upon countless lives.
St. John Mandel wields elegant prose as she glides through this saga that spans over two decades, fleeting through scenes of impending collapse with seeming effortlessness. Tiny details make for vivid scenes as the reader is taken from past to present and future; and into “counterlives,” as one character put it, where the world turned out slightly different because of one thing done differently, of one path not taken, of one word uttered. Magical thinking, perhaps, that for one character eventually leads to full-on hallucinations as he whiles away his days in medium-security prison.
The characters’ richly detailed counterlives make for an interesting addition to what is already a beautifully crafted novel as they make the reader wish for a different turnout. St. John Mandel perfectly recreates the feeling of teetering over the edge of a completely different world—and her nuanced prose makes you want to dive straight in.
The novel wraps up in a complete circle with another series of fragments, but with the entire devastating force of the novel behind them, they take on another dimension that borders on poetic—a feat accomplished only by a writer of St. John Mandel’s caliber.