And All Falls Down:
Emily St. John Mandel follows up her powerful novel, Station Eleven, about a global pandemic (sci-fi is turning out to be true) with The Glass Hotel, which also seems to be picked from the headlines and given her unique voice.
On the bestseller charts for weeks, the intricately plotted novel with interesting and sympathetic characters, is, among other things, about the ephemeral nature of happiness. An insignificant prank of schoolgirl vandalism—when a young Vincent (named after the writer Edna St. Vincent Millay) defaces a window of her school with an acid pen—has a huge impact years later, when some lives are wrecked and some irrevocably altered, by a random act of imitation.
Written in a non-linear style, the novel follows the lives of half siblings, Paul and Vincent, and at the centre is the glass hotel of the title, in British Columbia, built in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by boat, and with no cell or wi-fi signal, to give rich travellers a way to escape the world for a while, in luxury. As the hotel’s manager says, “Our guests … 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. … There’s an element of surrealism to it, frankly.”
As the two zig-zag through improbable turning points in their lives, everything unravels because of a Ponzi scheme, planned by a Bernie Madoff-like character, the super rich investment banker, Jonathan Alkaitis.
After dealing with their own traumas—Paul’s drug addiction and Vincent’s unmooring caused by her mother’s sudden death—they both wind up working at hotel. While she is tending bar, she meets the much older Alkaitis, who takes her away from there into a “kingdom of money”, where all she has to do is look pretty on his arm and be ready “whenever he wanted her, in and out of the bedroom, (and) she would be elegant and impeccable at all times.” They pretend to be married, though Alkaitis is still mourning the death of his wife.
As the house of cards built by Alkaitis is set for a spectacular fall, the book looks the other characters who would be impacted by the disaster, his employees, his ruined investors and his embittered daughter, who resents the presence of younger-than-her Vincent in her father’s life.
Vincent has a chameleon-like ability to adapt to circumstances, whether it is as a working girl in a bleak space or as a woman of leisure, spending her days shopping, with the “the freedom to stop thinking about money” given to her by Alkaitis. But she knows she does not really belong to that kingdom, and is able to leave it all behind when the time comes to pick an unlikely vocation.
The elegant writing, the fragmented narrative structure, and above all, empathy towards even the flawed characters, makes The Glass Hotel, both readable and memorable. As a post-Covid world has already proved, nothing can be taken for granted, least of all love and loyalty.
The Glass Hotel
By Emily St. John Mandel