“Money is its own country,” according to author Emily St. John Mandel, and in her latest novel — ”The Glass Hotel” — Mandel explores exactly what people are willing to do in order to become a citizen of this country of the wealthy. The book is loosely based on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, but “The Glass Hotel” is vastly different from the economic thriller it could have been. Instead of focusing on the logistics of the scheme itself, the book intricately weaves together the lives of many characters who come into contact with Jonathan Alkaitis and his investment venture, both before and after his arrest. Although the novel lacks the excitement that might be expected of such a book, Mandel has done again what she does best: wrapping up the stories of a large cast of characters into one cohesive package.
Mandel is particularly interested in her characters’ “counterlives” — essentially alternate universes in which they made different decisions. Alkaitis imagines himself in a swanky hotel in a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the US, instead of in a maximum-security prison cell. Others picture what their life would have consisted of if their entire life savings hadn’t been stolen. The idea extends so far as to leave an Easter egg for readers familiar with her last book, “Station Eleven,” as the main character Vincent imagines “an alternate world where the Georgia flu blossomed into an unstoppable pandemic and civilization collapsed.”
But despite the focus on lives not lived, Mandel also pays particular attention to what leads people to make certain choices. One of Alkaitis’s employees asks another, “How did he know we’d do it? Would anyone do something like this, given enough money, or is there something special about us?” Are those who work for a Ponzi scheme particularly bad, or do they just succumb to greed like any human would? Another employee explains under cross-examination, “It’s possible to both know and not know something… that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad.”
It all comes down to money. Vincent agrees to pose as Alkaitis’s wife, although Vincent doesn’t love him. She realizes, “What kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money.” “The Glass Hotel” doesn’t romanticize wealth — after all, most of the wealthy characters also struggle with deep-seated unhappiness or stress — but does understand its appeal, even as it actively makes its characters miserable.
The downfall of this novel is that it isn’t particularly exciting or suspenseful. It’s clear early on that at some point, Alkaitis will get caught and go to jail, and investors will lose their retirement funds or their life savings. Luckily, the novel is fairly short and Mandel has a trick up her sleeve. As in “Station Eleven,” this book comes full circle by explaining strange occurrences from the early chapters and giving characters symbolic ends to their story arc in a way that feels particularly poetic. Almost everything falls into place — though Mandel does leave the slightest bit of mystery — which propels the story for the final 50 pages or so despite the story’s overall lack of excitement.
“The Glass Hotel” is a quietly rewarding book. Despite its subject matter, it is as unlike a financial thriller as can be. Instead, it offers a look at the lives left unlived and the siren song of money. Come for the Ponzi scheme, stay for the satisfying conclusion.
—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew.