“The Message on the Window”: Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel

glass hotel

A lonely man walks into a bar and sees an opportunity. An opportunity walks into a bar and meets a bartender. A lonely bartender looks up from her work and the message on the window makes her want to flee, because the bartender’s mother disappeared while canoeing and she’s told everyone all her life that it was an accident but there is absolutely no way of knowing whether this is true, and how could anyone who’s aware of this uncertainty … write a suggestion to commit suicide on a window with that water shimmering on the other side, but what’s driving the bartender to despair isn’t actually the graffiti, it’s the fact that when she leaves this place it will only be to go to another bar, and another after that, and another, and another, and anyway that’s the moment when the man, the opportunity, extends his hand.

I was completely gripped by The Glass Hotel and yet I find myself at a loss when it comes to writing about it, not because it was difficult or confusing but because something about it was (for me, anyway) elusive. It is well constructed, in that its different parts, interwoven effectively throughout, tie up in a satisfying way at the end; it is well crafted, by which I mean that it effectively conveys its people, its settings, and its moods in sentences and sections that always kept my attention and sometimes were eloquent, beautiful, or memorable. None of this is meant as faint praise: plenty of novels do not manage nearly so much!

Since I finished reading The Glass Hotel this morning, I’ve been puzzling over why, for all that, it still seemed to be missing something. The best explanation I can give is that by the end of it, I wasn’t 100% sure why all of its specific ingredients belonged together in this particular novel: I couldn’t quite discern the underlying thematic unity, the meaning of it all. It’s possible that there isn’t meant to be one: perhaps the novel’s unity lies in its emotions, for instance, which did seem to be painted with a common palette of uncertainty, loneliness, and fear, with just the occasional highlight of hope or tenderness.

The biggest story the novel tells, a story which exerts a kind of gravitational pull on its other somewhat disparate people and elements, is that of Jonathan Alkaitis, a charismatic money man whose Ponzi scheme ultimately affects nearly everyone we meet. (He is modeled on Bernie Madoff.) But his financial fraud didn’t seem like a metaphor for anything else and there are no echoes of it in other people’s actions or values: it just is what it is, and has the consequences it inevitably does when it is uncovered. We meet investors and enablers, clients and partners, spouses and friends–the most interesting of whom is the painter Olivia Collins, who has invested all of her modest funds with Jonathan because once upon a time she knew and painted his brother Lucas, who has since died of a drug overdose. She loses everything, as do so many other people; the personal connection makes her betrayal seem particularly unforgivable.

glass hotel2But–why have a painter in this role? Is there something specifically meaningful about her portrait of Lucas? Are we meant to discern a contrast between what she makes (art) and what Jonathan makes, or pretends to make (money)? Is there a further connection along these lines to Paul, brother of Jonathan’s “trophy wife” (she isn’t quite that) Vincent, who is also an artist? Is Paul’s “theft” of Vincent’s archive of videos (repurposing, he prefers to consider it) meant as some kind of analogy to Jonathan’s abuse of his investors’ trust? How does the hotel of the title fit in, besides as a memorable setting? Is it symbolic? (People who live in glass hotels shouldn’t … what?) Is there meant to be a parallel between Vincent’s final moments, as she drowns (this is where the novel begins, so it’s not a spoiler) in the ocean, and the reclusive peace the hotel’s caretaker finally finds? Is the recurrence of drug addiction significant? Why are there so many ghosts? Is the message on the window somehow at the heart of it all? I have a lot of questions!

On the other hand, maybe none of them matter. I read The Glass Hotel almost entirely in a single sitting: it was the most engrossed I have felt in a book in a long time (in that respect, it was right up there with the last 100 pages of The Mirror and the Light). The novel worked for me as a reader, even if, when I sat back to think more about it, it hasn’t proved quite so satisfactory for me as a critic. My very favorite books are ones that make this distinction irrelevant. For me, analysis is not antithetical to pleasure but a pleasure in itself: that’s why I fight so hard against pejorative ‘takes’ on English professors that accuse us of taking all the fun out of reading – they assume such a narrow notion of ‘fun’! I get most excited when a book does all the things I look for–when it gives me all the kinds of fun. If I were on the hook for a ‘proper’ review of The Glass Hotel, my next step would be to reread it with all my questions in mind. Going through that process would either lead me to some ideas about where those ‘missing’ unities could be found (and Mandel is a smart enough author that she may well be doing things I didn’t grasp on a first read)–or to a firmer judgment about how much their absence matters. Absent that obligation, I’ll just stop here.

8 thoughts on ““The Message on the Window”: Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel

  1. Café Society May 17, 2020 / 7:06 am

    Station Eleven sent me searching for all of Mandelshtam other works and she hasn’t disappointed me yet. My current disappointment is that this isn’t yet available in the UK its publication date having been put back. From what you’ve said, I’d better make sure when I do get a chance to read it that I do so on a day when I can just sit down and do nothing else.


  2. Jeanne May 17, 2020 / 8:49 am

    I wonder if you’re missing some of what I took to be the theme of the novel–how habitually we don’t look at other people and appreciate how our actions affect their lives–because you’re Canadian. It seems to me that the British and the Americans have shown an acceptance for callousness (even if we didn’t vote for our current heads of state, as part of our society we contributed to the state of mind of the people who did).
    The title of your post shows that you do get it, to some extent. What was written on the window? A message of hate.


    • Rohan Maitzen May 17, 2020 / 4:54 pm

      I like that suggestion for a framing idea. It certainly helps tie Paul’s “mistake” with the drugs earl on with Jonathan’s crime, for one thing. And you are right about the message on the window, though I guess I’m still not sure how the novel is a response to that. It doesn’t give us much that’s a robust alternative to it–though it does show how ineffectual hate is as a response.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kerry Clare (@KerryReads) May 19, 2020 / 2:41 pm

    Once, a long time ago, I read her very first novel and IT WAS NOT GOOD, and the experience was so scarring that I only finally picked up Station Eleven after much encouragement. I liked it—but now in the midst of a pandemic, even though The Glass Hotel is not about a pandemic, I don’t think I can read another book by her ever again.


    • Rohan Maitzen May 19, 2020 / 4:34 pm

      Ha! I didn’t read the first one but I was surprised how impressed I was with Station Eleven (post-apocalyptic fiction is not my favorite thing, even before it seemed all too real!) so I was keen to try this. It really is good – but you always have plenty to read so I understand making different choices.


  4. Trevor June 4, 2020 / 1:02 am

    This is a wonderful post on this book. I haven’t read it yet, but I have a copy and was kind of curious what it was about and how it was about it. I love your exploration of your response, and your final thoughts on loving books that make any distinction between “enjoyment” and “analysis”! Thanks!


    • Rohan Maitzen June 4, 2020 / 8:29 am

      I appreciate that, Trevor! It’s a very readable book.


  5. Joseph Alonso May 13, 2022 / 8:41 am

    Rohan, Brilliant analysis. I felt the same way. Now I think Station Eleven, Glass Hotel and Sea Of Tranquility are all part of a huge story and Glass Hotel will be more impactful in context. The news of Patrick Somerville and St John Mandel doing GH and SOT together hints at validation. I am about to do a podcast on Patrick Somerville’s tv show Maniac and May go into one on these three books if you are interested in discussing.


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