“The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel; Alfred A. Knopf (320 pages, $26.95)
Emily St. John Mandel’s bestselling “Station Eleven” was a propulsive read that reeled us in with a series of thrilling set pieces on its way to a conclusion that struck me as anticlimactic. Her follow-up, “The Glass Hotel,” is almost the exact opposite: a sometimes meandering novel that totally sticks the landing.
It’s in construction, rather than storytelling, where “The Glass Hotel” falls short. Mandel structures it non-chronologically, leaping back and forth over several decades in a way that’s similar to, but not as skillful as, Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life.” Rather than intriguing us about how seemingly disparate events are connected, Mandel’s book frustrates us because, just when we’re beginning to warm to new characters in a new situation, she introduces a whole new set of characters in another new situation with another new narrator.
The central(ish) figure is Vincent, whom we meet as she falls off a ship into the ocean, plummeting to its floor. Subsequent chapters acquaint us with Vincent, who’s named for Edna St. Vincent Millay, as a wayward teenager and as a sort of trophy nonwife to a wheeler-dealer whose deals turn out to be part of a giant Ponzi scheme. (Ordinarily, I wouldn’t reveal that, since the book doesn’t do so until more than halfway through, but it’s given away on the jacket, probably as a way to make “Glass Hotel” seem like it has more momentum than it does.)
Vincent is an intriguing and elusive character, and as in the apocalyptic “Station Eleven,” Mandel is adept at creating believable dialogue and situations. There’s a bit of Mr. Ripley in Vincent, minus the homicide, as she adapts herself to fit into a variety of social settings, and Mandel creates suspense around the question of whether she’ll reveal her true self before the plunge into the ocean that begins the novel.
The other stuff, though? Yawn. Vincent’s brother, Paul, annoyingly weaves in and out of the novel, accidentally killing someone (with no consequences) in an early chapter and carelessly precipitating another tragedy later on. He’s a creep and not an interesting one. Same goes for Vincent’s spouse, Jonathan. It’s possible to squint and envision him as a despicable charmer, but Mandel doesn’t seem to care about him, his craven colleagues or his wealthy victims, so why should we?
Anyway, that’s where my mind was heading as I reached the last 50 or so pages of “The Glass Hotel.” I was still with the book, since Mandel’s prose is such a pleasure to read, and I remained curious about her protagonist. But my let’s-wrap-this-up attitude gave way to real delight in the skill with which Mandel brings together themes that have occupied previous sections of the novel, revisiting earlier characters and incidents from surprising new perspectives in a narrative sleight of hand that recalls what M. Night Shyamalan does in movies such as “Unbreakable.”
Mandel’s conclusion is dazzling, and even though there are moments in the book where you may wonder if it’s going anywhere, “The Glass Hotel” is absolutely worth checking into.
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