The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel has been high on my shortlist of books to read for some time now. I loved Station Eleven, and The Glass Hotel loops in one of the minor characters from Station Eleven, Leon Prevant. Though, this book is exists in an alternate reality where the Georgia Flu (the focal point of Station Eleven) doesn’t ravage the world.
Unfortunately, while Mandel’s writing is still quite book, it was a bit of a let down for me. I started it a while ago and wasn’t sure if I was going to continue, but went ahead and finished it this week.
See the Full Plot Synopsis & Summary for Station Eleven (spoilers). For the spoiler-free version:
Opening with the disappearance of a woman from a container ship, The Glass Hotel is a work of literary fiction focusing on the fallout from the collapse of a Ponzi scheme, mirroring the Bernie Madiff scandal from 2008. The story looks at the corrupt financier’s wife, employees and numerous investors in his fund. It’s a story about greed, corruption, guilt and the ghosts that haunt us.
See The Glass Hotel on Amazon.
Instead of the apocalyptic collapse brought upon by her fictional Georgia Flu in Station Eleven, The Glass House exists in an alternate reality and focuses on a different type of societal collapse, in the form of the financial crisis of 2008. More specifically, it explores the ripple effect of a Ponzi scheme that’s fallen apart, mirroring the Bernie Madoff scandal which came undone also in 2008.
The corrupt financier of The Glass House is Jonathan Alkaitis. Through the narrative, we get to know his wife Vincent, his employees and various investors in his fund.
I read quite a few reviews of this book before jumping into it and concluded that the negative ones were mainly from people who weren’t interested in reading a story about the financial crisis. As someone who would happily read about that topic, I really expected to like this book a lot more than I did.
To be clear, this is not a deep dive into the financial crisis, so I wouldn’t let that scare you away from it. If you know what a “Ponzi scheme” is and understand what “liquidity” is, that’s about all the information you need going into this. In terms of how in-depth it goes, I’d say it’s about on par with what you’d get from your average newspaper article.
Instead, the bigger issue from The Glass Hotel is that it was kind of a mish-mash of not fully explored themes and not fully explored stories. And for most of the the book, there’s no real driving force to the plot. Mostly, it introduces some interesting characters and you keep reading out because Mandel is a good writer and you hope that her story is going somewhere.
It jumps from topic to topic — memory, money, greed, corruption, survival, guilt, the ghosts that haunt us, etc. — competently, but never becoming greater than the sum of its parts.
In order to lend the story more cohesion, Mandel orchestrates a number of too-coincidental intersections between the characters. These perfectly opportune collisions bring the characters together and give the appearance of cleverness when there really isn’t any. One of the characters just so happens to be asked to deliver a message to a man whose major investor just so happens to be a former producer to a woman whose bandmate’s death he was responsible for, and this character’s sister just so happens to end up living with that first man, etc. And so on.
I think intersections between characters work when it makes you think “oh that makes perfect sense that they would come across each other!” as opposed to when it’s a product of pure chance that makes you think “there’s no way those circumstances would just happen to come together like that”.
In the end, it’s the ghosts and guilt that tenuously bind this story together, but again it only sort of works. Neither of those things are really prominent parts of the book. They’re brought up and act as the binding to patch the story together, but it only feels important in an ephemeral way, since there’s not really the substance there for it to linger in your mind.
Finally, I’m sad to say this because really like Emily St. John Mandel’s writing, but this also sort of a joyless, dreary story. It’s mostly a lot of cowardly, uninspiring characters resigning themselves to their weaker or worst selves.
The Glass Hotel Audiobook Review
I listened to most of this on audiobook. It’s pretty good. The accents aren’t great, but luckily there are only a few of them.
Read it or Skip it?
I really wanted to like this book, and I thought the writing was lovely, but it just didn’t come together for me. It’s dreary and all over the place. It kept feeling like it was grasping at poignancy, but not really getting anywhere. It jumps from topic to topic — memory, money, greed, corruption, survival, guilt, ghosts, etc. — offering some reflection on each, but doesn’t seem to address any of them in a fully satisfying way.
I think fans of Emily St. John Mandel may still enjoy the book, but I would be surprised if anyone liked it more than Station Eleven. If you haven’t read that, definitely start with that.
See The Glass Hotel on Amazon.