If you like your novels to take you to a series of elsewheres, and give you characters to get obsessed with, The Glass Hotel may be your perfect book.
It moves through striking settings: skyscraper Manhattan, a deluxe glass hotel in the Canadian wilderness, and a ship that the young and beautiful woman Vincent falls from as the novel opens. But who is Vincent, and why does she disappear? And why has someone etched in acid on the hotel lobby window “why don’t you swallow broken glass”?
Mandel has said that she wanted to write about the collapse of a too good to be true investment scheme, and those affected by it (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/apr/04/emily-st-john-mandel-i-admire-novelists-who-are-pushing-the-form-forward-in-some-some). But the book is about our ability to delude ourselves more generally, to be able to carry on living with some level of knowledge of what is going on, but to be in denial about the true meaning of our actions until everything collapses. I had read Stan Cohen’s classic States of Denial just before reading this, and his themes of knowing and not knowing at the same time were echoed over and over in The Glass Hotel.
The Glass Hotel reflects the very different worlds an individual can occupy and move between. From poverty to wealth, abundance to ruin, work to permanent leisure. Vincent comments on the similarity between wealthy urban areas around the world after visiting Singapore and London, noting that they are a culture or nation of their own – “the kingdom of money”. One character, a former businessman, notices the world of shadows – people living in the margins compared to his more mainstream life. He sees people in Las Vegas holding up signs advertising ‘girls to your room in 20 mins’ (p.247). “He’d seen the shadow country, its outskirts and signs, he’d just never thought he’d have anything to do with it”.
It is also about how the people from your past might come back to haunt you, literally or figuratively.
The possibility of finding joy in difficult situations, and the value of resilience, recurs. Vincent’s brother Paul, meeting her after some time apart, notes: “He studied Vincent closely for signs of trouble, but she seemed like a reserved, put-together person, someone who’d conducted herself carefully and avoided the land mines. How did she get to be like that, and Paul like this?”.
I fell into this novel and didn’t want to stop till I’d finished.