Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Celebrating Summer Reading: Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel

One mark of a good writer is the capacity to follow one engaging novel with another without reusing the same patterns or retelling the same tale. Emily St. John Mandel's novel Station Eleven was both engrossing and haunting, following a troupe of actors in a post-apocalyptic world.

Her newest novel The Glass Hotel is set firmly in this world, but it grabs readers early and doesn't let go. Mandel begins the book with three minimal glimpses of events from later in the story. They are vague enough not to reveal the characters involved, but specific enough in their imagery to remain like a bookmark for the reader.

The narrative first follows Paul, back at his father's home after his step-sister Vincent's mother disappears while boating alone, and then as he becomes infatuated with a female singer at a bar before giving her and her colleagues what end up being tainted drugs to one of her band members. Needing to get away to avoid any responsibility, he takes a menial job at the hotel to which the title refers, where Vincent works as bartender. An elaborate hotel on an island near Vancouver, it accommodates wealthy guests who want all the comforts and pleasures, while completely isolated from the world.

The focus moves away from Paul to his sister Vincent, when she meets one of the wealthy guests who actually owns the hotel, Jonathan Alkaitas, recently widowed. She next appears in tabloids as his wife--a fiction the two create to allow her to play a needed role in his life, while letting her to live as she pleases, with her new persona, shopping and dining without concert for credit limits.

The story takes a sharp turn when Alkaitas' business collapses, revealed as a Ponzi scheme, landing him in prison, from which a portion of the narrative is told.

Mandel introduces minor characters, then weaves together the cast of characters and their storylines, using what at first seem to be minor details--messages etched on windows, Vincent's habit of filming five-minute videos. The details come together to produce a story that is fresh and suspenseful. Not once did the story recall Station Eleven. Anyone who reads both novels will be tempted to look for her earlier works until her next novel is published.

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