The Glass Hotel—not so engaging

The Glass Hotel

By Emily St John Mandel

Published 2020

Read June 2021

This is the third Mandel novel read by this reader.  This book was written and published following her highly successful Station Eleven.  This reader had high expectations.  Once again Mandel uses an asynchronous story telling approach and there are a number of characters.  The book starts and ends with a death of one of them. 

Station Eleven had a unifying character and event for the various characters, Arthur, and the Georgian Flu pandemic that provided a central thrust—what’s lost/ what’s gained by the pandemic, how did it impact various characters, how is it see by various characters, etc.  The Lola Quartet also had a unifying character—Anna. Her on-the-run story and pursuit of her by one of the characters forms the thriller aspect of the story. 

When considering the unifying theme or character in The Glass Hotel, it is less obvious.  Vincent (a girl) and Paul are half-siblings whose individual stories of personal loss, seeking a place in the world, and art are told in pieces across the novel.  A third character, Jonathan, owns The Glass Hotel at which Vincent and Paul both work for a short time.  Vincent, the hotel bartender, serves Jonathan drinks one night and shortly thereafter readily accepts a role as his apparent (but not actual) second wife (first died of cancer) and lives in the world of the wealthy.  We eventually learn Jonathan’s wealth was gained by a Ponzi scheme which crashes.  Vincent leaves him and starts a new life on a transport ship as a cook and ends up in the ocean– providing the scene that starts and ends the book. 

Amongst all of this we learn about some of the victims of the Ponzi scheme including Leon, who was Miranda’s boss in Station Eleven.  Miranda is mentioned as well as is the Georgian Flu which apparently comes and goes without devastation in the background of this novel.  Leon and Miranda have different stories than they did in Station Eleven.  Some reviewers discuss this in terms of Mandel’s exploration of transience of life and multiple potential paths.  This reader found the presence of these characters somewhat off-putting and wondered if the author was trying too hard to be literary.   

This reader anticipates that her views of the book may not reflect other readers’ reactions.  Perhaps this reader’s lack of engagement by the characters was because none of them were particularly likable or even that interesting to this reader.  This reader does expect to read more by Mandel in the future.

The Lola Quartet–another great read from Mandel

The Lola Quartet

By Emily St John Mandel

Published 2020

Read June 2021

This is the second Mandel novel for this reader.  Mandel shows off her talent for slowly revealing the stories of multiple characters who are connected in some fashion.  In this case, the four characters she gives us were members of the Lola Quartet in high school:  Gavin, Jack, Sasha, and Daniel.  While they all take different paths after high school, Sasha’s half-sister Anna, who was the (probably simultaneous) girlfriend of Gavin and Daniel while they were in high school, provides a connection that complicates all their lives and provides the suspense/thriller aspect of the story.

Gavin left Florida which was literally too hot for his body to handle.  He majored in journalism and lives and works in New York City.  When his fiancée leaves him and his newspaper begins slicing off personnel, he invents a quote for a story to make it more interesting.  That first lie leads him to more made-up quotes and he is eventually discovered and fired.  He returns to Florida to bunk with his sister and work with her in a real estate bankruptcy business, hopefully all temporarily.  She shows him a photo of a young girl she took at a foreclosure property which triggers the possibility that Gavin is the father of a child ex-girlfriend Anna really had.  (There had been rumors she was pregnant when she left town shortly after Gavin’s graduation.)  Gavin’s hunt for the child and Anna provides the suspense/thriller plot and her connection with the quartet provides the means for the author to explore these characters through a series of current day/flashback scenes parsing between the various characters. 

Jack also went to college, but studied music to follow his passion.  His roommate, Liam Deval, has true talent as well as passion for music.  Liam agrees to drive Anna, who shows up at their dorm room one night, to a place she’s trying to reach that isn’t too far from their college town.  Liam’s semester, and college career, get derailed when he gets involved with Anna.  We learn Jack realizes his passion isn’t enough to fuel a musical career and he manages to get addicted to pain killers and ends up back in his home town, unemployed, living in wreck of a house in a bad section of town. 

Daniel had left town with Anna right after graduation, assuming her baby was his.  They make it to his aunt’s place where he expects they will be able to stay for a while only to find out that won’t be the case.  They end up in a garage of an acquaintance who is now a meth dealer. When the baby is born and it’s clearly not Daniel’s (per skin color), Daniel leaves Anna.  Anna stays in the garage for a while with the baby and managers to steal from the meth dealer a satchel containing about $120,000 and she starts a life on the run with her infant daughter.  We learn that Daniel is now a police officer in his home town and has two sets of children, from two failed marriages, whom he is supporting financially and with whom he is trying to remain a relevant parent

Sasha is the product of a very dysfunctional family.  Anna is her half-sister.   She started playing poker for money in high school and when the story picks up, she is working as a waitress in a 24-hour diner and fighting her addiction.

Liam Deval and Anna are critical characters but get little character development.  The quartet members are Mandel’s focus.  Each had a great high-school experience in the Lola Quartet and for Jack and Sasha this may have been “the best years of their lives”. Mandel may or may not have had planned to make a point here but did so with this reader.   Jack goes to college to study music—to follow his passion.  Students going to college to follow a sports passion often get a scholarship to do so.  Few make it into the profession leagues and they may or may not have had good preparation for post-college but at least they may leave with limited debt whether or not they graduated.  Students going to college to follow a passion in music pay to get a music degree.  Again, few make it professionally and they may be strangled with heavy student debt, again whether or not they graduated.  Jack drops out early when he realizes he’s not going to be successful and doesn’t progress from there.  Gavin moved away from music immediately upon leaving high school and was seeking fame and fortune through journalism vs music.  He dreams of winning a Pulitzer but his short cuts eliminate that possibility and likely future journalism jobs.  So there also is a potential point that at least these characters are driven to achieve fame and fortune and fail. 

Mandel demonstrates her ability to draw engaging, rounded characters.  They have serious flaws but good points as well.  They make serious mistakes and suffer the consequences.  Mandel pulls no punches here, but also keeps most of the violence and other nasty scenes “off-camera” —an approach this reader has already indicated much appreciation in her Station Eleven novel.   The well-executed character studies and the particular suspense/thriller story—especially with its messy ending—make for a really great read.

North and South—a strong young woman in a time of change

North and South

By Elizabeth Gaskell

Published 1855

Read June 2021

This reader began listening to North and South immediately after finishing Pride and Prejudice.  This reader, like many others, found a number of similarities between the books as well as some contrasts.

The protagonist is again a young woman.  We initially meet nineteen-year-old Margaret Hale on her cousin’s wedding day.  Margaret has been living in London with her cousin and her cousin’s wealthy mother for the past ten years.   Once her cousin marries, Margaret returns to her parents’ simpler home in the southern village of Helstone.  There her cousin’s brother-in-law, Henry, an up-and-coming barrister, visits her.  They had enjoyed conversations while in London at the many social events.  Henry proposes marriage and is rejected by Margaret who indicates they are only friends and she couldn’t imagine feelings beyond that.  Shortly after his event, her father, the pastor of the local Church of England, decides to leave his position as a matter of conscience.  Further, with the help of his old friend, Mr. Bell, he has decided to move to a city in the north, Milton, and make a living as a tutor.  He informs Margaret and asks her to tell her mother, knowing his wife will be distressed. 

Thus begins the real story of this book.  Margaret helps her father find a small house to rent and outfits it as best as she can before her mother arrives.  She begins interacting with various residents of the town which has several textile mills that are the major source of employment for the town.  Margaret meets Bessie, a girl about her age, who is very sickly.  Margaret eventually learns that her illness was caused by breathing in cotton dust while she worked at the mill. She also gets to know Bessie’s father, Mr. Higgins, who works at the mills and is a drinker. One of her father’s students is Mr. Thorton, an owner of one of the mills.  We learn that his schooling had been truncated when his alcoholic father died and he had to work to help pay the bills.  He has since then become a successful businessman himself and is spending some time with Mr. Hale to catch up on classical literature he didn’t study when he would ordinarily have. 

As in Pride and Prejudice, Margaret is generally prejudiced against Mr. Thorton, this time due to being an industrialist vs a gentleman.  This corresponds to her general prejudice against the whole concept of the industrial north and she longs for her days in the south and the culture of the gentry.  Her mother shares her prejudice and can’t adjust to being in this town.  It’s implied that the environment is dark—air and water pollution?  It’s not clear.  At any rate her mother falls sick – likely a cancer irrelevant to the town–and dies.  She extracts a promise from an unwilling Mrs. Thorton (Mr. Thorton’s mother) that Mrs. Thorton will provide Margaret moral guidance if needed. 

Mrs. Thorton is quite concerned that Margaret wants to marry her son.  During a visit to Mrs. Thorton at their home, which is on the textile mill campus, strikers charge the house.  Margaret steps out on the porch and tries to calm the crowd (and is effective).   Mrs. Thorton is convinced this act was out of love for her son.  But (of course) Margaret has absolutely no interest in marrying Mr. Thorton and is only interested in the welfare of the workers and didn’t want to see them beaten up by the army that was on the way to break up the crowd.

Without revealing more of the plot, there is a misunderstanding that causes Mr. Thorton to protect Margaret from a lie she told.  She is mortified that he knows about this lie and hopes that it can be cleared up.  Mr. Bell, whom she asks for help in this matter, dies before he completes this task.

Pride and Prejudice, which was also contemporary to its publication, is set about 40 years earlier.  Both authors point out that women had few rights and limited opportunities to make their own way, especially if they are of the “gentlewoman” class.  “Service” is open to working women and, in the North, factory work is available.  However, that proved deadly for many, including Bessie.   After the death of her father, Margaret has no obvious option but to return to her wealthy aunt’s house.  There she has far fewer freedoms than she did either in her beloved village of Helstone or in Milton.  In these two places she was free to walk about, interact with her neighbors and other area residents.  In London, however, she must have her aunt’s permission to leave the house and must be accompanied by someone suitable. 

In this book, Elizabeth Gaskell also highlights the changes occurring in the country.  The South is still a land of land-owning gentry and the farmers that work the master’s land and who are afforded compensation for it.  The shopkeepers and merchants and even the lawyers and businessmen are recognized as essential but are generally outside the “gentleman” crowd.  (Though since only one son inherits the estate, the other sons generally have to go into some kind of occupation to make a living!).  The North is now populated with textile mills and other factories.  The master is now the factory owner and clearly not of the “gentleman” crowd, Mr. Thorton being an example as someone who has raised himself up from a very poor existence to that of master.  The relationship between worker and master in the North is also very different from tenant and master in the South.  The author highlights this with the strike and the willingness of Mr. Thorton and his peers to bring in Irish workers to replace their former employees to meet their contracts when the workers go on strike.  Margaret’s interactions with both the workers and Mr. Thorton help her understand the chasm between them and she seeks to heal it.  She convinces Mr. Higgins, a loyal union member, to ask Mr. Thorton directly for work in his factory.  His perseverance motivates Mr. Thorton to hire him which sets the stage for a different relationship between them.

Mr. Thorton in this book and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice love the respective protagonists and seek to win their love.  Mr. Darcy’s actions to repair damage he caused Elizabeth’s older sister and to save her younger sister from her reckless behavior demonstrated selflessness that won Elizabeth’s heart.  Mr. Thorton protects Margaret from a lie she told and is generally resigned to life without Margaret but that alone does not win her love but rather causes her embarrassment to be around him.  When his financial situation changes, and he seeks employment as a supervisor (vs master), his willingness to work with those he would supervise nullifies Margaret’s prejudices. 

Both novels have much to draw a female audience.  North and South’s focus on the industrial situation may have drawn male audiences as well.  It is interesting to note that North and South was first published as a serial in Charles Dickens’ Household Words in 1854 and 1855 at the same time that a his Hard Times was being similarly serially published in this journal.  Dickens required this title for the work over Gaskell’s preference of “Margaret Hale” or “Death and Variations”.  North and South was published in book form in two volumes of 25 and 27 chapters each and differed from the serialized version in several ways  (; July 18, 2021)

Both Austen and Gaskell have provided readers for over a century two interesting, strong women characters whose personal stories have and will engage readers indefinitely.  Their books showed women possible ways of being/thinking that weren’t “standard” at the time and as well provided some commentary on the impact of “standard” thinking on society in general.  These are classics that have been and will be read and produced in multiple formats well into the future. 

Anxious People–with some twists

Anxious People

By Fredrik Bachman

Published 2020

Read June 2021

This is delightful book.  Part mystery.  Part drama.  Part comedy.  The author has a dry sense of humor and a wonderful understanding of human nature. 

A person desperate to get enough cash to rent an apartment so that they don’t lose partial custody of their kids following a divorce decides to rob a bank—with the intention of returning the money at some point.  Unfortunately, the bank is a “modern” one that doesn’t use cash so that plan fails.  During the subsequent police chase the robber stumbles into an apartment in the midst of a real estate open house and the attendees become hostages.  Except that was not the robber’s intention. 

Over the course of the novel, we meet and learn about the robber, each of the hostages, and the two police that are trying to work the hostage crisis while the person from Stockholm assigned to lead the situation is stuck in traffic. The characters are quite a collection with a nice range of turmoil happening in each of their lives and we learn that their situation is not as it seems.  The novel shifts back and forth between interviews by the police of the various hostages after their release and the forward moving story in the apartment. 

The structure is great.  The characters are wonderfully messy.  The story has some twists and turns and, in the end, some commentary on how we perceive ourselves and each other. 

Bravo Fredrik Bachman!  Keep writing!