Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Emily St. John Mandel isn’t one to tread the simple path in her novels, often favouring layering her works in complexity, as she once again masterfully did in her latest novel, The Glass Hotel. Taking place in modern times, the book follows a sister and her half-brother as they find themselves caught up in a massive Ponzi scheme which ruined many lives, with far-reaching consequences they are both about to experience.
Table of contents
Emily St. John Mandel Introduces the Biggest Con
It feels like Ponzi and pyramid schemes are a thing of the past and no one could possibly be so uninformed as to fall for them anymore. Disappointingly enough, greed is a powerful conductor for many people’s actions, and as long as the promise of money will be enough to make them lose their heads, there will always be those willing to take advantage of them. In Emily St. John Mandel‘s The Glass Hotel, we are taken right the heart of a massive Ponzi scheme and its unintentionally far-reaching consequences.
The story begins by introducing us to Vincent, a barmaid at a five-star lodging called the Hotel Caiette, located to the North of Vancouver Island. One night she makes the acquaintance of Jonathan Alkaitis, a rich and powerful swindler in the process of stealing the fortunes of people all across the world.
When the financial empire he built on lies inevitably collapses, countless people see their lives devastated, and there is no shortage of people who would prefer to see him dead rather than living. How does Vincent fit into all of this? She agreed to pose as his wife, and when it all came crashing down, she disappeared into the night.
While they prayed this might be the end of it, in truth the consequences of their scheme are only starting to manifest themselves now, starting with the vanishing of a woman from the deck of a container ship. Nothing is over for neither Jonathan nor Vincent, especially as her half-brother Paul enters the picture, a swindler himself and forever envious of his sister’s good fortunes. They all have their own ambitions, desires, and fates to follow, but inevitably they will overlap with each other and converge into a breaking point where someone will have to lose.
A Show of Characters in The Glass Hotel
I’ve done my best to summarize the entirety of the plot as best I can without giving any spoilers, but I feel like I should begin by warning you of this novel’s complexity. Generally-speaking, it isn’t easy to follow, nor is it exactly action-packed or extremely eventful. Instead, this is a novel focused more than anything else on character development, and Mandel makes a great effort to weave complex conflicts between said characters based on their personal traits, desires, and so on.
One of our signature flaws as a species: we will risk almost anything to avoid looking stupid.― Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel
In other words, you best buckle in for a slower and more methodical ride than what most other novels in the thriller genre have conditioned us to expect. With this being said, if a thriller novel doesn’t focus on the action and adopts a slower pace, it better excel at whatever else it set out to do, and I believe The Glass Hotel succeeds in this philosophy.
To begin with what’s less important, all the secondary and tertiary characters are presented with care and given believable personalities which cement them as real and existing people in this world, rather than plot devices forever forgotten after they are used. Ultimately, the author manages to create a persistent world which feels populated far beyond the confines of our story, and it’s not every day we come across a book capable of claiming this.
In regards to the main characters, I think their portrayal and development might very well be the novel’s greatest strength. They are far from being static, always absorbing their experiences and slowly shifting in accordance with them.
Though Vincent, Paul and Jon might all be swindlers and far from respectable, Mandel manages to make them look and feel like real human beings whose life decisions can’t simply be interpreted in terms of black and white. While we’re never outright called to root for them, it becomes difficult not to cheer for at least one of them, if only for intricately-written they are.
The Cloud of Human Toxicity
With all of this being said, what exactly is the point of the story? In my opinion, the main advancements in in The Glass Hotel come in the form of observing people, understanding their idiosyncraties, and witnessing how they affect the world with their toxicity, and in return, how it affects them.
Memories are always bent retrospectively to fit individual narratives.― Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel
I almost had the feeling of being a scientist in a lab coat at times, observing a contained experiment aimed at determining the effects of Ponzi schemes on people. I know this might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, especially in a thriller novel, but Mandel pulls it off exceptionally well, largely thanks to the complexity she imbues her characters with.
I should add this novel isn’t exactly of the uplifting kind where you can expect a happy ending beyond all shadow of a doubt. As a matter of fact, it gets fairly depressing at times, and while personally-speaking this doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I’d imagine there are people who hold the opposite opinion on this matter, so do be warned. While there are some moments of delicious retribution, the pain caused by the Ponzi scheme and the toxicity of our main characters take precedence over it.
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Now, I’d like to cap things off by saying there is also very much a plot in this book, even if it does develop slowly for a thriller and takes a back seat to the characters. It has careful and believable set-ups, some intelligent twists along the way to keep us on our toes, and even some elements of magical realism towards the end, imparting on the book a charmingly strange and rather unique atmosphere.
The Final Verdict
The Glass House by Emily St. John Mandel isn’t your average fast-paced thriller, but something with a lot more depth and complexity than what we’ve become accustomed to in the genre. It has a very solid and interesting plot in its own right, but the characters and their profoundly-complex development steal the show in this most unusual financial thriller.
If you’re looking for a crime story focusing more than anything on the human equation and taking its time to examine the far-reaching of a grand crime, then I highly recommend you add this book to your collection.
Video: Emily St. John Mandel on Fact, Fiction
Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel is a Canadian novelist who studied briefly at The School of Toronto dance Theatre before relocating to New York City. So far she has published five novels, with Station Eleven having won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Toronto Book Award, in addition to which it is also being adapted into a film. Her other works include Last Night in Montreal, The Lola Quartet and The Glass Hotel.