#ShadowGiller: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

I think most of us have heard of The Glass Hotel by now, after the huge success of Mandel’s previous novel Station Eleven. That also means readers are expecting a lot from this novel, and I think Mandel was able to deliver. What a joy to experience the story and characters through her intricately woven plot and beautiful prose.

There are so many things going on in this book that it’s hard to know where to begin…

Should I start with Paul, who plays a big part at the beginning but then drops off as other characters pick up?

I don’t hate Vincent, he told himself silently, I’ve only ever hated Vincent’s incredible good fortune of being Vincent instead of being me, I only hate that Vincent can drop out of high school and move to a terrible neighbourhood and still somehow miraculously be perfectly fine, like the laws of gravity and misfortune don’t apply to her.

Or Vincent, Paul’s younger half-sister, who has the amazing ability to continuously re-invent herself.

She had studied the habits of the monied with diligence. She copied their modes of dress and speech, and cultivated an air of carelessness. But she was ill at ease around the household staff and the caterers, because she feared that it anyone from her home planet were to look at her too closely, they’d see through her disguise.

Or maybe the Glass Hotel itself? The bright beacon in the wilderness, where Vincent’s life turns on a dime. And where a mysterious message shows up on the glass in the lobby.

The building would have been beautiful anywhere, but placed here, it was incongruous, and its incongruity played a part in its enchantment.

There are ghosts in this story. Not only ghosts of the people who remind certain characters of their dark deeds and mistakes, there’s also the ghost of an alternate universe (if you’ve read Station Eleven).

I could even begin with Jonathan, his decades-long Ponzi scheme, and his idea of a “counterlife.” As he sits out his 170 year sentence, Jonathan imagines that in his counterlife he fled the country before his arrest. Maybe, in his counterlife, he’s the “kind of person who keeps his passport on him at all times” and maybe his daughter Claire visits him in Dubai: “She disapproves of his actions, but they can laugh about it.”

When the Ponzi scheme fell apart, so did people’s lives. Leon Prevant and his wife lost everything – they had to sell their house and live in an RV.

In the shadow country it was necessary to lie down every night with a fear so powerful that it felt… like a physical presence, some malevolent beast that absorbs the light.

Jonathan’s partners-in-crime reflect on the moment in which they realize they are part of something illegal, and the decision–in that moment–not to do anything to stop it; leading into the idea of the possibility of both knowing something and not knowing it. (I think my son feels this every morning, getting ready for school–he knows he’s going to be late, but he also doesn’t know it, preventing him from moving any faster.)

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 that 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 of this and yet still somehow feel you’ve been wronged when your judgment arrives.

The Glass Hotel did not make it onto my predicted shortlist, but I have no objection to it being there (and, in fact, am perfectly content to see it there).

Further Reading:

Lindy saysThis practically hits all of my reading sweet spots: careful crafting, multiple viewpoints, vivid fragments, propulsive storytelling, intriguing characters and an ending that leaves me wondering.”

Anne says: “Mandel’s writing is a thing of beauty, and the plot she weaves among her memorable characters is well timed, keeping all 300 pages turning at a steady rate.

Marcie says:Emily St. John Mandel’s storytelling stretches to see into as many windows as possible.” and “The ways in which we choose to change, and how we are forced to change: these are essential and gripping questions.

20 thoughts on “#ShadowGiller: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

  1. Susan says:

    I still have this one on my list for this year. I finished her Last Night in Montreal novel not too long ago and did love Station Eleven. So have you picked which one you want to win the Giller? I also have Gil Adamson’s on my list. Good books for the Giller in 2020!

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    I just started my library copy last night. Early pages for me still, so I haven’t figured out what it’s going to be about (though I think that confusion might continue and might be part of the point!). Were you surprised to enjoy this as much as you did?

    • Naomi says:

      No, I fully expected to like it, so it’s a good thing I did! I know Penny had a hard time getting into it at first. The confusion doesn’t last too long – just keep going! 🙂

  3. annelogan17 says:

    Thanks for the shout-out! It was a lovely read, wasn’t it? Her plotting is so complicated, but I didn’t have problems following it, as other people warned me I might. Each character was just so well-drawn.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    You already know I love her way of amalgamating multiple perspectives into a single, over-arching story. (Thanks kindly for the link to my thoughts on the book!) I like the quotations you’ve pulled. The one about how carefully she observes people’s habits–I feel that could be said of the author too. And I love that bit about knowing and not-knowing. I feel like that could also be said of so many people in Station Eleven, the way that they choose to act and not act (especially the pair of brothers in the city near the beginning of that novel). She’s got the skillset to win this, but I wonder if the fact that she’s so solidly a New York writer now would count against her in any way.

    • Naomi says:

      Even though she’s in NY, Canada still seems to play a part in her writing – at least it has in the books I’ve read. I like to think one’s residence doesn’t influence the judges… Her writing is so clever/well-crafted.

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