The Glass Hotel

by Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, March 2020, $26.95

Some people live fairly normal lives that follow traditional patterns. But others move in and out of different worlds, restlessly seeking a happiness that continues to elude them. In The Glass Hotel, a well-written, but strange and otherworldly story, Paul and his half-sister Vincent leave the peaceful yet isolated world of Caiette, British Columbia, in search of something that they can’t find in their tiny island town or in themselves.

Both siblings find themselves eventually living what should be extraordinary lives. Vincent becomes the trophy wife of uberrich financier Jonathan Alkaitis and moves in rarified circles, and Paul becomes a well-known composer and performer. Yet both continue to suffer feelings of inadequacy and unrest, certain their success is largely a lie, and both remain haunted (literally) by the actions—some inexcusable—that have brought them there.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is how it explores the idea of having alternate lives, or “counterlives,” as Vincent’s husband Alkaitis calls them—and also how finding your counterlife may not be all that you imagined. In keeping with the ethereal atmosphere of the novel, all three characters, Vincent, Paul, and Jonathan, see the ghosts of those they’ve harmed—just a glimpse here or there, but enough to remind them that they can never truly escape their former lives.

Disquieting and melancholy, The Glass Hotel involves the mysterious disappearance of Vincent and crimes of greed and ambition, including a Ponzi scheme run by Alkaitis, but is more mysterious than mystery. St. John Mandel’s careful character studies evoke the reader’s sympathy for those who seek a better life but can never find it—or who finally grasp happiness but don’t get to enjoy it. While her characters may not deserve a truly happy ending, it leaves the reader wishing that they could at least find peace—in this life or the counterlife.

Vanessa Orr
Teri Duerr
St. John Mandel
March 2020