The Glass Hotel
by Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf – March 2020
Since I started writing reviews for Book Pipeline, I’ve examined novels and works of nonfiction that I feel have crossover potential: The Silent Patient, The Churchgoer, and She Said. These books—two novels and a piece of nonfiction, respectively—are all incredibly well-written, engaging creations easy to imagine being adapted to film or television. In fact, two of them already have been put in development by major Hollywood production companies/studios.
When I picked up The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, the author of illustrious works like Station Eleven, I assumed I was in for a similar reading journey. What I got instead was something entirely different—The Glass Hotel makes no attempt to be conducive for film/TV adaptation. Instead, this rich, haunting, utterly absorbing, and deeply thought-provoking literary novel focuses on telling its story in a way that only a 300 page novel could possibly do.
And let me tell you—I was mesmerized every single second.
Published in March 2020 by Knopf, The Glass Hotel is a nonlinear, sweeping piece that looks into a unique set of characters all linked together by the actions of one man: Jonathan Alkaitis, a Bernie Madoff-esque financial titan running an international Ponzi scheme. The novel shifts perspectives many times throughout, ranging from characters such as Vincent (Alkaitis’ second wife), Paul (Vincent’s troubled, addict half-brother), Olivia (an artist acquaintance of Alkaitis), Leon Prevant (a shipping magnate who put his entire life savings in Alkaitis’ fund), and even Alkaitis himself. It charts the psychological highs and lows of each character as their fate becomes inextricably intertwined with Alkaitis. Through their multifaceted points-of-view, The Glass Hotel gives an intimate, painful, and probing dissection into exactly how each of their lives come crashing down when Alkaitis is caught and sent to prison.
It is truly a breathtaking novel that, through its highly unusual structural format, investigates the themes of corruption, loneliness, and the ever elusive quest for interpersonal connection. It is a novel that continually pushes your intellectual boundaries, a work that forces you to investigate deeply challenging questions of morality, and challenges your preconceived notions of right and wrong.
So, looking at The Glass Hotel from the perspective of both the aspiring novelist and the already published author, what can be gleaned from it? While there are a plethora of good writing axioms to be taken away from the novel, perhaps the biggest one is this: not being afraid to tell your story in an unconventional manner.
The Glass Hotel goes against pretty much every “traditional” mode of storytelling possible. It doesn’t have an out-and-out main protagonist, the plot is meandering and highly complex, and the prose—while highly intricate, evocative, and well-drawn—deals with an incredibly dark, emotional subject matter.
And despite all of this? It works. It fires on every single cylinder imaginable and makes for inarguably one of the best books of 2020 thus far.
Simply put, The Glass Hotel proves that the only person who knows the story you’re trying to tell is you, the author. Only you know what’s best with regards to what you’re trying to say. You, and you alone, are the authority on what your characters look and sound like, what the thematic underpinnings of your work is, and how the complexities of your story-world can articulate themselves on the blank page.
Now, this isn’t to say that you should be closed off to feedback from others. On the contrary, the difference between great writers and good authors is the ability to accept input from readers and infuse their comments and insights into new drafts. But, it is to say that—as with all things in life—there are exceptions to every “rule” in writing, and that you shouldn’t listen to naysayers who try and tell you otherwise. Certainly, Mandel was met with at least some resistance when she was coming up with The Glass Hotel. But she clearly stuck to her guns and crafted a heart-wrenching, absolutely exquisite literary touchstone that defies all expectations—and will serve as an inspiration for fellow writers for years to come.
So, to all of the writers reading this? Trust your gut. Your best day (and best work) is yet to come, and will only happen when you 100% believe in yourself and your vision. And throw everything else out the window.
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