A book review by BPL team member, Beth.
“The building would have been beautiful anywhere, but placed here, it was incongruous, and its incongruity played a part in the enchantment.”
So says one character in describing the distinction and allure of the Hotel Caiette, the titular hotel in Emily St. John Mandel’s newest novel, The Glass Hotel. Accessible only by boat and at the edge of wilderness in an inlet on Vancouver Island in Canada’s British Columbia, the Hotel Caiette offers its guests a temporary respite from the modern world. As the only location in which almost all of the novel’s multiple protagonists cross paths (albeit unknowingly, in some cases), the contrasting of the Hotel’s luxury and the surrounding wilderness offers insight into one of the novel’s ongoing themes: the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
The novel follows a multitude of characters, across both time and place. Paul is a young man in his early twenties who, after years of struggling with drug addiction, successfully enrolls in the University of Toronto. Following a tragic incident, Paul leaves school after only semester and goes to live with his estranged younger half-sister, Vincent, in Vancouver. Having dropped out of high school, Vincent is struggling to find what she wants to do with her life. This is in December 1999, and these characters, like others throughout the world, imagine whether the end of the millennium will bring with it the end of civilization. Flash forward to 2005, and both Paul and Vincent are working at the Hotel Caiette. Jonathan Alkaitis is a wealthy investor, and owner of the Hotel. On an evening that Jonathan is set to arrive, someone scrawls a disturbing message on the windows of the Hotel. That same evening, a conversation between Vincent and Jonathan leads to an intimate relationship. Not long after, Vincent quits her job and moves with Jonathan to New York City, leaving behind a working life just outside the wilderness, for a life of opulence in a large metropolitan city.
Vincent, like other characters throughout the novel, illuminates the difference between wealth and want not merely as a difference of station, but a difference of country. Aside from the luxury available to one in the “Kingdom of Money” (as Vincent refers to it), perhaps its most distinguishing feature is the freedom of its citizens, particularly the freedom to never have to think about money. But Vincent and the rest of the world soon learn just how much of a façade the mechanisms creating such wealth are, as the 2008 economic crisis reveals the fraud of financiers like Jonathan. Ponzi schemes, subprime mortgages, and other risky and predatory financial products lead to the most devastating financial crisis since the Great Depression. The household wealth of millions are wiped out overnight, resulting in evictions, foreclosures, and destroying the hopes many had of retirement.
While readers, for obvious reasons, are reviving Mandel’s 2014 post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, a novel about a worldwide viral pandemic, I’d argue that her newest novel speaks just as well to the times that we are living in. The Glass Hotel is largely a story of who loses most in an economic crisis. To many, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis will be just as devastating as the virus itself. For the majority of Americans who have no savings, and no accumulated wealth, they again will be hit hardest by the current economic downturn. As in 2008, a crisis whose consequences we’re still dealing with, we again learn that those who have the least, end up being the ones who lose the most. If in times of crisis we continue to fail to address the obscene gap between those on the very top and those at the bottom, more and more people will be forced to live lives, as one character puts it, with “no space for any kind of error or misfortune.”
The Glass Hotel is an evocative and immersive read, one that I would recommend to fans of Mandel’s previous works. Like Station Eleven, the novel is told from multiple perspectives, full of unique and compelling characters; characters whose stories circle around and intersect with others in unexpected ways. It’s a sweeping, atmospheric novel, whose impressions will stick with readers long after they finish reading. Dense with metaphor, symbolism and provocative themes, it would make an excellent selection for a book club.
See below for a book discussion guide for The Glass Hotel, which includes spoilers.
Book Club Discussion Guide (SPOILERS)
1. What was your immediate impressions of the novel? Did it grip you immediately, or did it take some time for you to get into it?
2. Is there a particular character you identified with, or liked most? Which one? Why?
3. About the Hotel Caiette, Raphael tells Walter “The truth of the matter is, there’s a certain demographic that will pay a great deal of money to escape temporarily from the modern world.” Which demographic is he talking about, and what makes them want to escape? What exactly are they escaping to?
4. What were your first impressions of the Hotel? Did you impressions or opinions of it change at any time in the book?
5. Were you surprised by the guests and staff reaction to the message (Why don’t you swallow broken glass?) that Paul left on the Hotel’s windows? Why did they react so deeply?
6. Discuss how the above scene compares with the original relaying of the message (from Suzanne to Ella)? What did you think of this scene? How do you think the staff and guests would feel if they knew of the original incident?
7. Responsibility is an important theme in the novel, with some characters going as far as possible to abdicate themselves of any responsibility whatsoever. Discuss this theme when it comes to the actions of Vincent, Paul and Jonathan. How do each of them understand their own responsibility for their actions?
8. Many of the characters claim to see ghosts of people they once knew. Do you think these ghosts are real, or are they merely projections of their own guilty consciences? What makes you think so?
9. Several characters refer to difference in economic class as not merely a difference in station, but as a difference in country. What do you think of this metaphor?
10. Discuss the experiences of the characters who move between the Kingdom of Money and the Shadow Country (Vincent and Leon, in particular.) What do they learn? What did you learn?
11. Water is constant theme in Vincent’s trajectory through the novel, and she seems to feel both an aversion and attraction to it: the drowning of her mother; the Hotel is surrounded by water; her daily swim in the Kingdom of Money; her working on a Neptune-Avramidis ship; the fact that she, like her mother, dies by accidental drowning off a boat. What do you think water symbolizes in Vincent’s story?
12. Jonathan is told by a fellow inmate “I’m no expert, but I remember reading somewhere, every time you retrieve a memory, that act of retrieval, it corrupts the memory a little bit. Maybe changes it a little.” What role does memory play throughout the novel? In what ways do the various characters corrupt or change their own memories?
13. When speaking to a reporter, Jonathan maintains that his Ponzi scheme was only one piece of the fraud, and he alone didn’t cause an economic collapse. While the novel is fictitious, it is based on real events, including the 2008 economic crisis. And Jonathan is right that there were many more bad actors who didn’t face any repercussions for their actions. What would (real) life look like now if more people were held accountable for their role in the 2008 collapse?
14. Have you read Station Eleven? Compare this and The Glass Hotel. How are they similar/different? How do they connect? In what ways do each of them speak to our current times?