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‘The Glass Hotel’ a work of bold and brittle beauty

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There are few better feelings than the sensation that comes with the dawning realization that the book you are reading isn’t just good, but great. No matter how much hype you’ve seen, no matter how many recommendations you’ve received, it all comes out in the reading. When the language captivates you and the narrative enthralls you and the themes provoke you … that’s a great book.

Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel” (Knopf, $26.95) offers up just such greatness.

It’s a mesmerizing puzzle box of a book, one whose many interconnected parts are in seemingly constant motion, both through space and time. That sense of propulsive perpetuity creates an almost insatiable hunger in the reader; we simply can’t stop. There’s a rhythm to the steady movement that borders on the hypnotic, sweeping us away at speeds that vary from snail-paced to breakneck – all in service to an incredible story.

An aberrant, almost surreal modern hotel in the midst of the Canadian wilderness. A high-level financial firm with returns seemingly too good to be true. A cargo ship crashing through the Atlantic’s waves. A medium-security prison. The unanticipated dynamics inherent to the seedier side of downtown Toronto and the falsified smiles and rubbed elbows of the ultra-rich.

At the center of all of this, in ways both obvious and subtle, is a young woman named Vincent. Dealing with the aftermath of a tragic event in her small-town childhood, Vincent seeks to escape. In her teen years, she resorts of small acts of rebellion – vandalism and the like. She has a fraught relationship with her brother Paul, a musician of some talent who is also cursed with demons that seem destined to be his constant companions.

But even as she flees her home and loses herself in city life, she’s drawn to return home. Specifically, to work at the shining glass monolith that is the Hotel Caiette, located on an isolated end of Vancouver Island – a five-star monument to the idea that the wealthiest among us want not to experience nature, but merely to observe it.

She crosses paths with Jonathan Alkaitis, a massively wealthy investment advisor who also happens to be the hotel’s owner. In a seeming instant, Vincent is plucked from the hardscrabble obscurity of her service industry life to become the consort of one of the country’s wealthiest men. She is a trophy, but not a wife (though neither she nor Alkaitis is inclined to let that truth slip); her job is to be the escort that Alkaitis wants, when he wants.

But Alkaitis’s success is built on a dark secret. The returns on his investment fund are so metronomically excellent that they seem almost impossible … and so they are. For decades, he has been executing financial fraud on a massive scale, with just a scant handful of employees being aware of the extent of his misdeeds. And when the end comes, it comes quickly.

Even as these lives – and various others – tick along their paths, they all remain ensnared by the overwhelming gravitational pull of Vincent. She is the fulcrum, the central point around which these people orbit, whether they know it or not … or whether she does. As they twist and spin, they begin to intersect in ways both expected and utterly surprising en route to a satisfying denouement.

A work of literature that is truly special is a rare thing. Knowing that said work of literature is special even as you read it is much rarer. “The Glass Hotel” is an example of the latter, a book that announces itself with such triumphant confidence that you’re ready to sing its praises to the skies after just a scant handful of pages. Compelling characterizations, narrative vividity, thematic complexity – often, you’re lucky to get just two of those three, even in quality works. To have the trio represented so fully is a gift.

Mandel is a writer of many gifts; one of her greatest is the ability to breathe life into unusual settings. The incongruous glass edifice of the titular hotel is one, but we see so much more: the private jets and yachts of the 1%, the basement apartments and sticky-floored clubs of the urban youth. We spend time on cargo ships and in prisons. We see the lifestyles of the rich and famous juxtaposed against the people eventually destroyed by those lifestyles, either directly or indirectly. And every setting – physical, emotional or both – is rendered with breathtaking clarity by Mandel.

“The Glass Hotel” is masterful, an elegantly constructed work of great emotional power and literary sophistication. While the narrative complexity is significant, it never once enters into the realm of convolution; every piece of the puzzle is placed just so, allowing the overall picture to appear in exactly the manner in which the author intends. It’s a meditation on just how surprisingly thin the foundations on which we stand can be – and how easily they can break, leaving us floundering in shadowy depths we never expected and don’t understand.

Truly a great book, one that will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Last modified on Friday, 03 April 2020 10:53

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