The title of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel is more symbolic than actual, although the book abounds with expensive houses and hotels full of glass walls, and images of light on glass, and reflections in glass, water like glass, and even two cryptic examples of acid writing on glass. Despite all the reflected sunlight, and the sunlit exteriors viewed through shaded interiors we get the feeling that this will be a dark tale. The sunlight simply covers over the crimes little and big that all human lives seems to collect. The glass suggests a transparency which does not exist. It is as if you tried to look through the glass from the outside, but the inside was so dim in the bright sunlight that all you could see was your reflection.
Paul is the first character we meet. Although he certainly wanders along underneath the main narrative, his is also an iconic modern story. Paul’s sister, Vincent, I know strange name for a girl, but that is her name, does not know her brother well and is warned by her mother that he has a difficult life and she should stay away from him. However, Paul is adrift and Vincent is his only anchor so he makes sure that his path sometimes crosses hers. Paul wants to be a musician but he is in college studying math. He is barely surviving and then things get even worse when he goes to a Goth bar to hear the group Baltica and buys a bad batch of Ecstasy. He hands it off to the band, not realizing that it is a messed up batch and Charlie Wu dies of a heart attack. Talk about a life-haunting event. And why did it have to happen to a guy from the back of beyond in Canada who already had a tenuous grasp on life skills. Paul becomes a heroin addict.
Vincent, who once engraved with an acid pen on her window the mysterious phrase ‘Sweep me Up,” does get swept up by billionaire John Alkaitis when she is working as a bartender at an exclusive hotel near her hometown of Caiette. Vincent also drifts along through life, although she is not very old. She has the habit of filming scenes from nature, especially of water for five minute segments of time but this does not seem to be leading her to any career or art form. It’s just something she does. Paul, actually Vincent’s half-brother, also is working at the hotel and he is accused of etching the sentence ‘Why don’t you swallow broken glass’. It’s an odd echo of his sister’s behavior and we even think that Vincent may have done this. It’s a mystery that isn’t solved until much later so I will leave it there.
This is not really the story of Paul and Vincent although they begin the story and end it. The fact that Paul keeps stealing parts of Vincent’s life and slowly killing himself with drugs will have you wondering about the reason these two are even in this story. They are sort of two innocents destroyed by the evils of modern life. But John Alkaitis does not seem evil. He’s very good to Vincent and he has style and wealth. He’s a sympathetic figure as he lost his first wife to cancer. Vincent is too young for him but she doesn’t question him or try to control him in any way. She is just a pretty, cheerful and self-contained presence. But John Alkaitis is a financial wizard who seems to use magic to produce investment returns that are consistently high. How does he do it?
The book is well-written, full of evocative images. It begins with a flashforward to the end which you may not even process unless you go back and read the beginning again. The beginning did not draw me in but I stayed with it and became quite enamored of the book. It’s not easy to pluck a story out of the news and make it fresh, with a decided literary flair.