The Glass Hotel Summary
The Glass Hotel is a 2020 novel by Emily St. John Mandel about Vincent and Paul, half-siblings whose interconnected lives unfold over the course of several decades.
- The nonlinear novel begins and ends with the death of Vincent, who imaginatively visits Paul as she drowns.
- Decades prior, Paul accidentally kills a musician and seeks help from Vincent. Later, both work at a hotel, where Vincent meets wealthy investor Jonathan Alkaitis and becomes his lover.
- Vincent lives luxuriously with Alkaitis until his fraudulent schemes disintegrate. Vincent takes to the sea. Alkaitis is sentenced to life in prison, where ghosts visit him.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1369
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel opens with the line “begin at the end.” In December of 2018, a young woman named Vincent has fallen overboard into the ocean, and as she dies, she is struck by vivid memories from her childhood. She also finds herself able to forcibly direct her mental attention towards her estranged half-brother, Paul, whom she envisions sitting outside in a foreign city, looking terrible.
The section abruptly ends, and the narrative shifts backwards to 1994, at which point Paul is attending the University of Toronto as a finance major in an effort to stabilize his life after it was derailed by a debilitating heroin addiction. He wishes he was majoring in music composition, but his mother felt that he needed to pursue a more practical degree. On the recommendation of a classmate, he attends a concert by a local band called Baltica. When he encounters the band at a different club on another night, Paul attempts to impress them by giving them the remnants of a batch of the drug ecstasy that Paul had previously purchased. However, Paul is unaware that the drugs are badly made, and one of the band members dies.
Fleeing from his mistake, Paul moves in with Vincent, who has dropped out of high school. He recalls that the last time he saw her was when she was thirteen, right after her mother died under mysterious circumstances. The death transformed Vincent from a bright and responsible student into an angry and rebellious teenager.
The story then moves forward to 2005. Paul and Vincent are now both employed at the Hotel Caiette. The hotel is a luxurious wilderness retreat frequented by the wealthy. One night, the usually orderly existence of the hotel is disrupted. The phrase “why don’t you swallow broken glass?” is written on one of the hotel’s windows, shocking and disconcerting everyone on staff. The hotel manager, Walter, immediately suspects Paul, and he asks Paul to resign from his post. A distraught Paul complies.
The same night, Jonathan Alkaitis, a wealthy New York businessman who also happens to own the Hotel Caiette, arrives for one of his frequent visits. He does not see the graffiti. However, he does convince another guest, Leon Prevant, a shipping executive, to invest his life savings in Alkaitis’s company. Alkaitis also invites Vincent, who was working as a bartender, to come to New York with him. She agrees.
The next three years of Vincent’s life introduce her to what she calls “the kingdom of money.” She lives a life of luxury as Alkaitis’s paramour, and while she admits that she doesn’t love Alkaitis, the two maintain a positive relationship. Vincent, who is thirty-four years Alkaitis’s junior, settles into a routine of traveling, shopping, and swimming in the pool at Alkaitis’s home. She eventually makes a new friend, Mirella, who is dating Faisal, one of Alkaitis’s investors.
The next section introduces Olivia Collins, a retired painter. In her youth, she painted a portrait of Jonathan Alkaitis’s older brother, Lucas, who died from a heroin overdose when Jonathan was still in high school. Olivia’s youthful success quickly waned, and she has spent most of her adult life in poverty. Decades later, Jonathan Alkaitis buys the painting of his beloved brother for $200,000, which Olivia then decides to invest in his company.
Part two of the novel opens with Alkaitis in prison. As of early 2009, he is serving a 170-year sentence after it was discovered that his investment company was actually a front for a Ponzi scheme. He has not seen Vincent since his arrest, and it is later revealed that this is because she has joined the staff of the Neptune Cumberland, a shipping vessel, as the on-board cook.
The next section jumps ahead to 2015, at which point Alkaitis has been in prison for several years. He begins to notice that reality is slipping around him, and he spends most of his time engaged in daydreams that he calls “the counterlife.” In the counterlife, he has made different decisions, which have not resulted in his imprisonment. During his lucid moments, he sees the ghosts of those who died or comitted suicide as a result of his Ponzi scheme, including Faisal.
Back in 2008, Vincent learns something new about Paul. Against all odds, he has obtained some success as a musical composer, and she decides to attend one of his shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. However, she is saddened and outraged to discover that his success has come as a result of his using Vincent’s old videography projects as backgrounds for his compositions. She walks out of the show and the two never see each other again. A few days later, Alkaitis’s Ponzi scheme is discovered.
Part three of the novel opens as the five employees that worked as asset managers in Alkaitis’s firm lament their involvement in the Ponzi scheme. The so-called office chorus consists of Oskar Novak, Harvey Alexander, Enrico, Joelle, and Ron. Each member—except for Ron, who is written off as genuinely stupid—recalls the moment when they decided to commit to the fraud rather than report it. As the Ponzi scheme falls apart around them, they each react in different ways. Oskar researches non-extradition countries but ultimately does not flee; Harvey feels liberated by the opportunity to be honest, and he writes an extensive written confession that ultimately earns him a lenient sentence; Enrico flees to Mexico and starts a new life using his deceased cousin’s identity; Joelle deludes herself into believing that everything will work out somehow; and Ron is blissfully unaware. Simone, Alkaitis’s personal assistant, becomes a key witness in the ensuing trials after she is asked to help shred evidence.
Alkaitis’s investors, including Olivia Collins and Leon Prevant, lose everything. Olivia watches the trial out of a sense of obligation, but even Alkaitis’s shocking 170-year sentence does not bring her any peace.
In prison, Alkaitis continues to see more ghosts. Years after his sentencing, he sees Olivia’s ghost join Faisal, and his fears regarding her death are confirmed during a visit with his biographer. He reflects on his relationship with a woman named Ella Kaspersky, who had attempted to bring attention to his scheme in 1999. However, an incompetent government investigation found nothing incriminating, and Ella was personally and professionally disgraced. It was Ella who hired Paul to write “why don’t you swallow broken glass?” on the glass of the Hotel Caiette all those years ago, using a phrase that Alkaitis’s deceased wife, Suzanne, had once said to Ella.
The next chapter takes place in 2018, as Leon Prevant reflects on how Alkaitis’s Ponzi scheme has changed his life. Rather than retiring comfortably, he and his wife now travel the country in an RV, working seasonal jobs. He is offered a consulting contract by his former shipping company to investigate Vincent’s death. However, he agrees not to report all of the findings when his fellow investigator says that it could negatively impact both of their future employment prospects. Leon is left feeling guilty and morally corrupt, but he notes that at least he still has his RV and a loving wife.
The next section features a conversation between Paul and Ella Kaspersky, during which the two reflect on the graffiti incident that got Paul banished from the Hotel Caiette. Paul is still struggling with his heroin addiction as of 2018, and Ella departs sadly after wishing him the best. High on heroin, Paul sees a vision of Vincent wearing her chef’s uniform from the Neptune Cumberland, and he later learns that he saw that vision the same night she died. It is implied that Paul eventually seeks help for his addiction and goes back to rehab.
The final section ends where the novel began, as Vincent is drowning after falling overboard. It is revealed that her death was indeed an accident, as she fell overboard while filming the ocean in the midst of a storm. She is transported through a series of memories before finally arriving back at a scene from her childhood where she reunites with her mother.
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