I was hesitant to read “The Glass Hotel,” Emily St. John Mandel’s most recent novel. After all, the last book I read by her, “Station Eleven,” has haunted me more and more over the last few weeks. However, while this new book is indeed haunting, it is not about a global pandemic or its fallout. Instead, it is a book about how we never leave one another, never lose one another, and never know how we impact the people we meet, even if only for a moment.
Like her last novel, “The Glass Hotel” shows off Mandel’s extraordinary talent for weaving a story that loops and swirls and reconnects with itself through the choices of the characters. The reader has the feeling that Mandel is an observer describing the actions of real, in-depth multidimensional characters, not a puppet-master determining the movements of cutouts she has created. The narrator’s voice, and through it the author’s, always seems genuinely curious and surprised by the story’s twists and turns.
When Vincent, a young woman from British Columbia with no sense of direction or purpose, suddenly decides to leave her hometown and her bartending job, no one seems to know why—not our narrator, not her coworkers, not even Vincent herself. Her half-brother Paul, who also works there, leaves the same day, for completely different reasons. Their lives rarely cross paths again, and yet they are completely, utterly, and unknowingly intertwined.
The novel traces out from Vincent and back to Paul and then out again through secondary characters, giving the reader a view from the outside, and then back in again to Vincent’s innermost thoughts as her life reverses course again and again. Through it all, a surreal sense of anxious expectation mixes with a kind of comforting certainty that we are never alone, and our lives are never inconsequential.
Like many right now, I have had a hard time concentrating on any book for long. My anxiety about the state of the world manifests as a lack of focus, and I find myself drifting. Perhaps because “The Glass Hotel” echoes my anxiety and my drifting focus, or perhaps because Mandel’s writing style is simple, straightforward, and engaging, I found myself captivated.
I stayed up until 1 or 2 in the morning several nights, reading, unwilling to leave these compelling and unnerving lives. Even after I have finished, I find myself returning to Vincent, Paul, and the others, just as they return to one another in the story, fascinated to stand as ghosts in the corner, waiting to see how our crossed paths will ripple out through time.