On knowing and not knowing

Cover of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel showing a large hotel reflected in water

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I try to avoid reading about the plot of a novel in advance, as I like to encounter books on their terms. Admittedly, if I had known how central a Ponzi scheme modeled on Bernie Madoff’s was to The Glass Hotel, I might never have started it. But as in Station Eleven, another excellent book by Emily St. John Mandel, the plot here isn’t so much the point as the means to gain insight into what makes people tick. And as in that earlier novel. Mandel does a marvelous job.

Using an omniscient point of view, Mandel hops masterfully between characters with a sureness that calls to mind Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit from the Goon Squad but with less self-conscious showiness. Mandel uses broad brush strokes to skillfully paint characters and scenes and keep the plot moving steadily. Like a Charles Dickens novel, vividly-drawn characters come in and out of the story, reappearing in unexpected ways. But Mandel’s understanding of people and empathy for her characters is more akin to Dickens’ contemporary, the great Elizabeth Gaskell.

The fairly short length and breezy writing style of The Glass Hotel mask a challenging complexity. Mandel doesn’t hit you over the head with a straightforward, central message. Rather, she lays out the thoughts and behaviors of her characters, depicting the consequences without being judgmental. Many of the characters are unable to come to terms with either their own actions or what is happening to them. At one point, in explaining what he did, one says “It’s possible to both know and not know something.” The statement makes no sense to others, yet seems to be the overarching theme of the novel.

This isn’t to say that it’s not clear what’s right or wrong. The question is, how can people who essentially see themselves as good people nevertheless do such bad things? And how do they live with themselves afterwards? This seems a particularly cogent question for our times.

If there’s one fault I would cite with this book, it’s that, without giving too much away, the guilt that people feel for their actions are repeatedly manifested with a mechanism that I thought came across as too facile for this rich and thoughtful a novel. There are many other themes at play here, though: our trust and dependence on others, the corruptive force of money and, much as in Station Eleven, finding meaning in life.

Without revealing any spoilers, I’m still digesting some things about the book, particularly why it’s structured like it is and the meaning of the scenes that brackets the novel. Likewise, the glass hotel on a remote Canadian peninsula, which is central to many of the characters’ stories, isn’t a neat metaphor as you might expect. It represents different things to different characters: a temporary escape, an investment opportunity, a safe place from a hostile world. I’m still thinking about all this, which is what a great novel is supposed to do.