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The Glass Hotel: What you let yourself know and not know

If you’re still in search of a summer read (okay, I may be in denial about how much of the summer is left) you could do much worse than Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. With a jumpy chronology and shifting narrative points of view, the novel follows the rise and fall of a Bernie Madoffesque character and his ‘wife.’ It has the appeal of a suspense novel, but with the depth of well-crafted literary fiction. Plus descriptions of fancy things, which let’s not kid ourselves, we all love.

I was especially taken with the thematic questions at the heart of the novel: the possibility of knowing something and not knowing it at the same time [which the form of the novel brilliantly demonstrates – the reader is introduced very early to the knowledge that Jonathan (our Madoff character) will go to prison, and yet we spend much of the novel knowing this, and doubting it as we read (and hope?) that he and Vincent will avoid punishment]. Our characters struggle with what immorality (and crimes) they are willing to stomach from those around them or themselves, and more importantly, what they are able to put out of mind and ignore for their own material comfort. While the novel doesn’t make the explicit connection to our current moment the reader can’t help but contemplate what we know is happening and what we allow ourselves to not know (for any host of issues from climate change to racial injustice to animal suffering to the utility of a Peloton bike to etc). Rather than casting these characters as evil or unlikeable for this self-delusion, the novel instead points to how we all find ourselves in situations, often lifetimes (of jobs, or marriages, or identities) where we have made compromises, or slid down slippery slopes, and rather than confront where we are, or what we have become, or who we are with, we insist on not knowing what we also know. It’s a question I’ve not read as explicitly or carefully in any novel, and one that, after it surfaces, seems entirely obvious for exploration. Like so much else hiding just below the surface waiting for consideration.

So yes. If the well-paced plot, fully developed characters, and scenes of fancy things weren’t enough to endear you to this book, let the weighty (yet somehow not ponderous) theme bring you to it.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner