Review Catch-up – Mandel

The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel

Knowing that characters from this novel turn up in her latest Sea of Tranquility, I thought it best to read this one from 2020 first. As you’ll see from the collage above, I had treated myself to the indie bookshop numbered, signed edition with gorgeous spredges (sprayed edges) when it was first published, but somehow didn’t manage to read it until late May. (See how much catching up I have to do on whim-reading reviews!

This novel has three main protagonists: Vincent, the beautiful bartender; Jonathan Alkaitis, a financier who owns the hotel where she works; and Leon Prevant, a shipping executive. All three meet in the Hotel Caiette, an exclusive hotel only reachable by ferry from Vancouver Island – the kind of place you retreat to – for whatever reason.

“Our guests in Caiette want to come to the wilderness, but they don’t want to be in the wilderness. They just want to look at it, ideally through the window of a luxury hotel. They want to be wilderness-adjacent.”

Still, the island is where Vincent and her brother Paul grew up, and both gravitate back to it for different reasons, having previously escaped to Toronto.

Alkaitis is visiting his hotel, where Prevant is also staying. In Vincent, he’ll see the perfect woman to have on his arm: in Prevant, he sees a mark, an ‘investor’ into his fund – which will turn out to be a Ponzi scheme (an illegal scheme where the investors’ returns come from the money invested by the next tier of marks below them).

We follow Vincent primarily through her ultimately hollow relationship as a trophy wife to Alkaitis who is largely anaesthetized to the world around him, effectively becoming a nomad – but a very rich one!

“You know what I’ve learned about money? I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.”

The thing about Ponzi schemes is that as with pyramid selling, they require more and more investors at the bottom and when people decide to withdraw their investments, it skews everything. Alkaitis’ scheme was always going to fail – it’s a matter of when. Only a few are in the know about his secret company managed by just a few trusted employees in the backroom and his sister Claire who only suspects what the others know.

“Everything’s contracting,” she said, “I heard you speaking with Enrico last week, and you said you were losing investors, not gaining them.”
“You look tired, Claire.”
“because I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking about this.”
“Claire, honey, I know what I’m doing.”
“No, I know, I’m just saying, the optics of the thing, the timing of it–.”
“Right,” he said. “The optics,” He blinked.

That word, ‘optics’, makes me shudder. Gone are the days when it mostly referred to the drinks measure dispensers fixed to upended spirits bottles in pubs!

The scheme goes up in smoke, and Vincent has to escape and make herself scarce. So she goes to work as a chef on a cargo ship, of the line managed by Prevant. As for Alkaitis, or Vincent’s onward journey, I shall say no more.

Mandel is one of those few Western authors I’ve so far read who is capable of writing in that languid and dreamy, slightly aloof style which remains full of drama, like my favourite Japanese authors (Ozawa, and most recently Onda). In the sections on board ship, there were echoes for me of Smilla’s voyage on an icebreaker in Peter Høeg’s wonderful novel too, although with a different kind of drama for Vincent.

This is a multi-layered, beautifully plotted novel, that continually links back to itself, as its nomads travel the world, the Glass Hotel providing anchorage – for a while at least. If you loved Station Eleven, you’ll love this novel; if you’re not a fan of dystopias, this is a super place to start with Mandel.

Source: Own copy. BUY the paperback at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link. (Picador, 301 pages)

13 thoughts on “Review Catch-up – Mandel

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’d recommend her 2nd novel, The Singer’s Gun, too. It’s a noir, but written in her unique style.

  1. carltonc63 says:

    Beautiful edition. Envious, as I didn’t see this edition when issued.
    I enjoyed this when I read, although very different to her best selling Station Eleven, more subdued and not as bravura, but good.
    Have also enjoyed Sea of Tranquility, so will be interested in your thoughts, in due course…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I bought the signed edition of her latest too – didn’t see an indie bookshop special this time – mine came from Waterstones – and without the spredges. I hope to read it soon, but am concentrating on books I’ve owned before 1.1.22 for #20BooksofSummer at the moment (I’m behind!)

  2. Calmgrove says:

    The hotel in which guests can view the wilderness in lieu of experiencing it is somehow familiar – we stayed for a week in a small establishment in Victoria on Vancouver Island a few years ago as an escape from Emily’s work gig in Seattle, and barely moved much away from the town. Mostly content to walk log-strewn beaches and admire the Olympics across the water, the closest we came to wilderness was a whale-watching trip during which we saw no whales.

    So I can see how some, even incomer residents, might be enticed by the get-rich-quick lure of the commercial jungle, only to be badly bitten. I really must try some Mandel…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Your holiday still sounds rather fab! I did a whale-watching trip off Providence, Cape Cod and have never been so nauseous. We did see some though!

      You really should read Mandel, Chris. She has a unique style which is beguiling and dramatic at the same time.

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    Glad you were able to catch up on this one. What a gorgeous edition you have! I found that Sea of Tranquillity didn’t quite live up to it, but was still great fun to read.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m saving that for after my 20 Books of Summer (all owned prior to 1.1.22 – well that’s the plan)

  4. Laura says:

    I loved this so much. Like Rebecca, I didn’t think Sea of Tranquility was nearly as good as the first two in this loosely linked series – but it’s worth it to see Vincent again!

  5. BookerTalk says:

    This was even more enjoyable than Station 11. I loved the languid style of the prose. I don’t know what point Mandel was making with the novel but it didn’t matter, I just wallowed in the story

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Languid’s the word – spot on! I also agree about the nebulousness of the central premise – I’m thinking transparency and invisibility. Wonderful book though.

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