Book Reviews

Book Review – The Glass Hotel: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel – Money Is Its Own Country

The Glass Hotel seemed to be on everyone’s list of best books for 2020. I read it and didn’t think much of it at first. However, a few things stayed with me and kept me thinking after I’d finished it and was trying to get a handle on it for a review. For that reason, I think it’s a sleeper book that catches up on you and makes you think. The title refers to a five-star hotel off the coast of Washington State. It’s a place of isolation and also a place where worlds collide.

At first, the book comes off as disjointed. Perhaps it’s a slice of life as seemingly unrelated events are depicted. We have the character of Vincent, a woman who appears at various stages of her life in the story. She grew up not far from Hotel Caiette (The Glass Hotel) and works there later in life as a bartender. Jonathan Alkaitis is the billionaire owner of the hotel. He sees in Vincent exactly what he needs and convinces her to pose as his wife. She’s enjoying living a life of luxury when the PONZI scheme Jonathan has been trading in collapses and she disappears.

In a seemingly unrelated event, later on, a mysterious woman disappears from a cargo ship where she’s employed as a cook. An insurance investigator begins an investigation.

Readers will grasp the connections that the author doesn’t make. How did Vincent go from her life on an island in Washington State to wife of one of the world’s richest men, to working on a cargo ship? The path is an unusual one filled with side-trips and detours. We are following Vincent through about twenty years of time, along with her step-brother Paul, who doesn’t fare as well as Vincent through the years. We know he’s a part of the mystery, but it’s the travel through time that creates a more complete picture of the life Vincent was running from. One character’s actions have an impact on the events for other characters. The way the story is told, I could see what was going to happen and still be on the edge of my seat as it was playing out. The main concept of the story is the contrast of a life with money and a life without money. Vincent gets to see both sides of that equation and takes the reader along with her.

“You know what I’ve learned about money? I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.”

In the months since I finished The Glass Hotel that quote stuck with me, and I saw more and more in our own world how that is true. International borders don’t mean much of anything to people who have money. Think about how the bin Laden family was allowed to leave the United States after 9/11 without being questioned. While other people’s flights were grounded, they were allowed to fly. Or during the COVID pandemic when borders were closed how some wealthy people managed to cross borders without having an issue.

The characters are not exactly heroes or villains. They all have good and bad points. We see Paul as weak. He uses his relationships for his own advantage as he’s trying to survive this world and floundering. I could root for him to conquer his demons and be a better person and at the same time feel the pain his actions cause other characters, particularly Vincent. She is just trying to survive the world as best she can, and who can blame her when she decides to grab the gold ring for a while with Alkaitis? However, she knows she doesn’t belong or truly fit in that world and really is just biding her time until it’s the right time to walk away from it.

The Glass Hotel was a bit of a hard read. There’s not a point A to Point B story. It jumps around quite a bit and things only really make sense once the book was done. My initial reaction was that it wasn’t that great of a book, but as time went on I saw more of the reflection of our society in the events depicted here and came to appreciate it much more. It’s a book that will make you think about the world we live in and how we think society works.