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'The Glass Hotel' review: Rich tale of a Ponzi schemer and his victims

"The Glass Hotel" is the latest novel by Emily St. John Mandel. Credit: Knopf

THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf, 303 pp., $26.95)

Though most authors who have books coming out this month are canceling tours and cursing fate, Emily St. John Mandel is surely an exception to the rule. She made her fiction debut in 2014 with a National Book Award finalist about a flu pandemic. These days, “Station Eleven” is on all the top 10 lists of books to read in quarantine. 

"The Glass Hotel" focuses on a totally different topic, a disaster in our past rather than our present. At the center of the novel is financier Jonathan Alkaitis, a character inspired by Bernie Madoff, responsible for a Ponzi scheme that falls apart in 2008, destroying the lives of not just his investors but his family and his employees.

But that’s not where the story begins — in fact, we don’t get there for a while. The novel proceeds via a series of vignettes set at various points between 1958 and 2029 and ranging around the globe. They gradually knit themselves into a single story in a way that will remind readers of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad.”

The first section, just a page and a half long, is titled “Vincent in the Ocean,” and is set in 2018. Opening with the words “Begin at the end,” it records the last thoughts of a narrator who has fallen off a ship into the sea. “I want to see my brother,” thinks Vincent, who is female. “I haven’t seen my brother in a decade."

The next chapter moves back to the 1990s and there we find her brother. Paul is an unhappy, socially awkward student and aspiring musician at the University of Toronto. He is about to run into some terrible moral luck — committing a careless, but not intentionally harmful act that has drastic consequences. Moral responsibility is the common theme of the book’s many strands, and we see again and again how a person who makes one error goes on to make another.

In 1994, the year Paul and Vincent’s mother died by drowning, construction began on a luxury hotel in their tiny town on the western edge of Canada — "a five-star experience in a place where your cellphone doesn’t work.” Both siblings eventually end up working at the Hotel Caiette — she as a bartender, he in maintenance. Both are present the night in 2005 when a disturbing graffito appears defacing one of the glass lobby walls.

So are Ella Kaspersky, a businesswoman from Chicago, and Alkaitis, who owns the place. Spending a special anniversary there are Leon and Marie Prevant; Leon has done well in shipping and they are about to retire to South Florida. Unfortunately, they are also about to meet Alkaitis. Leon is a good man, and he and Marie have the only relationship with any real warmth in the book, but even he will not be allowed unsullied innocence.

"The Glass Hotel" plays out not just in real locations but in shadow worlds of fantasy and in the “counterlives” of the characters. Some of the satisfaction we might have gotten from seeing characters resolve their issues with one another is lessened when matters are taken care of by ghosts.

This is a strange, ethereal, and very well-written book, so interesting it might actually take your mind off things for a while.

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