Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Emily St John Mandel - The Glass Hotel

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star hotel on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby's glass wall: "Why don't you swallow broken glass." Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for Neptune-Avradimis, reads the words and orders a drink to calm down. Alkaitis, the owner of the hotel and a wealthy investment manager, arrives too late to read the threat, never knowing it was intended for him. He leaves Vincent a hundred dollar tip along with his business card, and a year later they are living together as husband and wife.
High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients' accounts. He holds the life savings of an artist named Olivia Collins, the fortunes of a Saudi prince and his extended family, and countless retirement funds, including Leon Prevant's. The collapse of the financial empire is as swift as it is devastating, obliterating fortunes and lives, while Vincent walks away into the night. Until, years later, she steps aboard a Neptune-Avramidis vessel, the Neptune Cumberland, and disappears from the ship between ports of call.
In this captivating story of crisis and survival, Emily St. John Mandel takes readers through often hidden landscapes: campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping, service in luxury hotels, and life in a federal prison. Rife with unexpected beauty, The Glass Hotel is a captivating portrait of greed and guilt, love and delusion, ghosts and unintended consequences, and the infinite ways we search for meaning in our lives.

Comment: I've recently finished this one, which I got last year after a lot of hype convinced me I would want to know what it was about. Having talked to a friend, we've decided to buddy read it but it turned out I thought it would have a much bigger impact and in the end, it wasn't so for me.

In this novel, we follow a certain group of characters who are somehow connected to Jonathan Alkaitis, a very rich and influential man, whose business is quite attractive for those who invested in it. However, it is revealed the business doesn't exist and that Jonathan and his close advisers have bet it all in a ponzi scheme. This means everyone loses money and even more than money, for many have invested life savings which affects the life of them all and of their families. In the middle of all this we have brother and sister Paul and Vincent, who somehow get mixed up with the whole thing, even if it isn't as obvious at first, despite Vincent marrying Jonathan even though their age gap means they don't have that much in common. How is everyone going to deal with the repercussions of such an event? What will happen to their lives?

I can see why this worked out so well for many readers but at the same time, I feel a little disappointed with the lack of impact the story had. I must agree with some readers who have said perhaps the weakest choice was to not present this in a linear tale, for the author chose instead to divide the story into three parts but we have chapters from different moments in the plot and in the life of the main characters mixed up. I think it turned the story into something a little confusing when one thinks about the time line and, ultimately, made the whole book feel it lost that significance I looked for.

The plot is complex enough to allow the reader to think about many things. It can become tiring, though, to divide one's attention to so many things, so many characters. I think one reason for so many people being key characters with a POV we follow is probably to make it easier to understand how the scheme affected so many so easily. But I didn't feel any real connection with the characters, not only because they weren't as well constructed as they could, were the novel to be focused on less elements, but mainly because I found most of them were not likable.

Jonathan is easy to not like, but the way he was characterized by the author made it look he wasn't this big bad ruthless villain, he was just a man who took an opportunity and went with it. We are made to feel sorry for him over the illness of his first wife but deep down, he and all the others involved knew they would cause others harm somehow, and that is something that can't be overlooked. As for the other people found guilty of the scheme, they do seem human and I did like this or that detail about their lives or personalities, something that distinguished them from one another but... I missed the emotional part.

All characters are flawed, human, very realistic if one thinks about the possibility of real people having those attitudes towards one another and a scheme to make them rich. We are given a little extra focus on Vincent and Paul, the siblings who seem to guide a good part of the plot in different moments. I thought we would be influenced to like them or to defend their side, or to understand their motivations but sadly neither felt like someone I would want to like or be friends with and when the book ended, and the last information about them is shared, I wasn't too touched or moved by what happened.

To be fair, I can't properly explain why this felt underwhelmed to me. There's this notion, vibe of unease, of something dreading, which the writing style maintains chapter after chapter, often aided by the tactic of wording like "...he didn't know years later he would be doing this..." or "he did this not knowing that in the following week tragedy would...", which makes the reader assume something truly bad/immense will happen, and doesn't. I can appreciate this style and here and there it does deliver, but for the most time, it doesn't, which leads me to think the characters weren't as worried as we are told they were.

A last note on the ghosts. Yes, there are ghosts on this book, which basically work as a sort of guilt induced coping method for those who feel guilty they might have caused someone enough worry/problems that they died because of something that person did or inadvertently caused. I get it and it was suggestive but after several examples, it started to loose its appeal.

I think this was a good story, with interesting themes and even the characters had a good base but the development and the idea to keep things slightly evocative and symbolic was a little lost with the lack of empathy towards the main characters and their decisions. I think this story could have been stronger all around.
Grade: 6/10

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