Greed, Destiny, and Death at Sea Haunt ‘The Glass Hotel’

Lee Polevoi



The Glass Hotel

By Emily St. John Mandel


320 pages


Fans of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, may be forgiven for wondering if she could top that achievement with her new novel, The Glass Hotel. With a sense of wonderment, it’s possible to report that, yes, she has.  


Broadly speaking, The Glass Hotel revolves around two events:  the collapse of a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme in 2008 and, years later, a woman falling (or being pushed) from the deck of a container ship at sea. In between swirl a variety of interconnected subplots and a host of living, breathing secondary characters. And, as with Station Eleven, the author enjoys (and is seemingly peerless at) shuffling time and point of view in ways that subtly enrich the text, while never disorienting the reader as to where and what is going on.


Vincent, the self-admitted “trophy wife” of financier Jonathan Alkaitis, is catapulted overnight from a subsistence existence into what she calls the “kingdom of money.” While having virtually everything she’s ever wanted, Vincent can’t shake uncomfortable feelings triggered by this “strange new life.” And before it all comes crashing down, she understands why she clings to everything wealth can buy:


“What kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely it changes your life.”



Early on, there are indications that the surface gloss of Mandel’s prose might frustrate a reader starved for details (“They went out to the terrace, which had Italian pretensions”). But such concerns are quickly dismissed as the narrative unfolds in subtle and surprising ways.


The author is particularly adept at generating sympathy for her characters, including Jonathan, the mastermind behind the grand financial scheme that ultimately bankrupts investors. Despite his conviction and a life sentence of 170 years, Jonathan doesn’t see himself as any sort of criminal genius:


“It’s possible to know you’re a criminal, a liar, a man of weak moral character, and yet not know it, in the sense of feeling that your punishment is somehow undeserved, that despite the cold facts you’re deserving of warmth and some kind of special treatment. You can know you’re guilty of an enormous crime, that you stole an immense amount of money from multiple people and that this caused destitution for some of them and suicide for others, you can know all this and yet still somehow feel you’ve been wronged when your judgment arrives.”


Years later, as Jonathan descends into dementia, the reader comes to magically agree that, in spite of his terrible crimes, he does deserve “warmth and some kind of special treatment.”



The novel’s fragmented structure can sometimes seem as if Mandel’s juggling too many storylines, then letting them fall and scatter where they may. But this, too, carries the ring of truth. We all lead fragmented lives and existence is never more vividly felt then in those moments when a person’s life changes forever.


Rich characterizations, fluid handling of both time and perspective, flashes of great humor, and near-flawless dialogue—that’s a lot to ask of any novel, and The Glass Hotel has it all.


About halfway through, I stopped taking notes and simply gave over to the reading experience. The feeling is much the same as reading The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona last year. It’s unlikely I’ll read a more elegant, engaging and immersive work of fiction in 2020.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:



--Kalhh (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Pixnio (Creative Commons)

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