Review: The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel

Review: The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John MandelThe Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Narrator: Dylan Moore
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on March 24, 2020
Length: 10 hours 26 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, an exhilarating novel set at the glittering intersection of two seemingly disparate events—a massive Ponzi scheme collapse and the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea.

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging 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. High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. When the financial empire collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan’s wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: a woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container 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.

I checked this book out right after finishing Sea of Tranquility because I understood it had many of the same characters as that book. For most of the book, I admit this one was sitting on 4 stars, but I bumped it up by the end because I didn’t want to stop listening once I reached the last couple of hours. It didn’t reach the brilliance of Sea of Tranquility or Station Eleven for me, but it was definitely interesting. Who knew you could write a lyrical novel about a Ponzi scheme? But it is. I can’t really say I liked any of the characters, but I’m not sure you’re supposed to. My favorite parts were the office workers reflecting on what they were doing—Mandel calls these sections the Office Chorus. I understand she has said that the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme inspired her, and she was curious as to what the people working with him were thinking as they engaged in this illegal and unethical behavior. This book explored humanity’s interconnectedness and how our pasts and the people in them haunt us. It was compelling, though I’m not sure it will rise to the top reads of 2023—Sea of Tranquility might.


Review: Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel

Review: Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John MandelSea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Narrator: John Lee, Dylan Moore, Arthur Morey, Kirsten Potter
Published by Random House Audio on April 5, 2022
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Fantasy/Science Fiction
Length: 5 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.


The award-winning, best-selling author of Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel returns with a novel of art, time, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon three hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.

Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal—an experience that shocks him to his core.

Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She's traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive's bestselling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.

When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.

A virtuoso performance that is as human and tender as it is intellectually playful, Sea of Tranquility is a novel of time travel and metaphysics that precisely captures the reality of our current moment.

Sometimes I feel like books find us when we need them. I read Emily St. John Mandel’s wonderful book Station Eleven and found it unlike anything I’d read before. And then, I found myself living amidst a pandemic, and snatches of that book came back to me and terrified me. As soon as I heard about Sea of Tranquility, I put it on my to-read list. There were passages of great beauty in Sea of Tranquility, but more than anything, what I admired about the book was recognizing what it was like to live through a pandemic and what it is like to contend with understanding the impact of colonization and even to wonder if the reason everything seems surreal is that we’re living in a simulation.

Emily St. John Mandel has said she is fascinated with the way we behaved in February 2020, when we could see the pandemic distantly but really didn’t understand it would affect us in the United States in the same way as it affected people first in China. I remember my own thinking at the time was that SARS had been contained, and Ebola had been contained. Still, as Mandel reminds us in this book, SARS can always come back in a new guise—my understanding is that we owe the speed with which a vaccine was developed for COVID to the fact that research had long been underway on how to vaccinate for SARS using mRNA vaccines. One of the characters in Sea of Tranquility has written a pandemic novel—Olive Llewellyn seems to be a version of Emily St. John Mandel contending with the popularity of Station Eleven and its adaptation (which is also great!). In Olive’s novel Marienbad, she writes

We knew it was coming.

We knew it was coming and we prepared accordingly, or at least that’s what we told our children—and ourselves—in the decades that followed.

We knew it was coming but we didn’t quite believe it, so we prepared in low-key, unobtrusive ways—”Why do we have a whole shelf of canned fish?”…

We knew it was coming and we were breezy about it. We deflected the fear with careless bravado…

Pandemics don’t approach like wars, with the distant thud of artillery growing louder every day and flashes of bombs on the horizon. They arrive in retrospect, essentially. It’s disorienting. The pandemic is far away and then it’s all around you, with seemingly no intermediate step.

I found myself nodding along as Olive contemplates the surreality of living through a pandemic—meeting via hologram (and how exhausting it is) is the Zoom of 2203; the loneliness is the same. Olive’s contemplation of the sirens and what they mean is chilling. I remember during one particularly surreal moment in 2020, a local church sent a car around the neighborhood with a recording playing over a loudspeaker that they were praying for everyone. Olive reflects during one of her holographic interviews:

My point is, there’s always something. I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story. It’s a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it’s ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world.

After that section of the novel, I had to pause the audiobook and cry for a minute because it seemed like something slid into place. Our world is not uniquely terrible. Living through the pandemic was not uniquely terrible. The world has always been terrible. Imagine what it was like to live through the Plague. Yet in the midst of all that terribleness is beauty. It’s impossible to read Sea of Tranquility without glimpsing those moments of beauty, too. What we don’t always understand is that we create those moments, in spite of everything.