Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel” is this month’s Ballerina Book Club pick. The excerpt is drawn from the first part of the book, shortly after a troubling incident in the lobby of the luxe resort Hotel Caiette. The year is 2005, and we are just beginning to get to know the characters that take us through the novel.
Excerpt from “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel
Leon Prevant left the lobby at four-thirty a.m., climbed the stairs to his room, and crept into the bed, where his wife was sleeping. Marie didn’t wake up. He’d purposefully drunk one whiskey too many with the thought that this might make it possible to fall asleep, but it was as if the graffiti had opened a crack in the night, through which all his fears flooded in. If pressed he might have admitted to Marie that he was worried about money, but worried wasn’t strong enough. Leon was afraid.
A colleague had told him this place was extraordinary, so he’d booked an extremely expensive room as an anniversary surprise for his wife. His colleague was right, he’d decided immediately. There were fishing and kayaking expeditions, guided hikes into wilderness, live music in the lobby, spectacular food, a wooded path that opened into a forest glade with an outdoor bar and lanterns hung from trees, a heated pool overlooking the tranquil waters of the sound.
“It’s heavenly,” Marie said on their first night.
“I’m inclined to agree.”
He’d sprung for a room with a hot tub on the terrace, and that first night they were out there for at least an hour, sipping champagne with a cool breeze in their faces, the sun setting over the water in a postcard kind of way. He kissed her and tried to convince himself to relax. But relaxation was difficult, because a week after he’d booked this extravagant room and told his wife about it, he’d begun to hear rumors of a pending merger.
Leon had survived two mergers and a reorganization, but when he heard the first whispers of this latest restructuring, he was struck by a certainty so strong that it felt like true knowledge: he was going to lose his job. He was fifty-eight years old. He was senior enough to be expensive, and close enough to retirement to be let go without weighing too heavily on anyone’s conscience. There was no part of his job that couldn’t be performed by younger executives who made less money than he did. Since hearing of the merger he’d lived whole hours without thinking about it, but the nights were harder than the days. He and Marie had just bought a house in South Florida, which they planned to rent out until he retired, with the idea of eventually fleeing New York winters and New York taxes. This seemed to him to be a new beginning, but they’d spent more money on the house than they’d meant to, he had never been very good at saving, and he was aware that he had much less in his retirement accounts than he should. It was six-thirty in the morning before he fell into a fitful sleep.
When Walter returned to the lobby the following evening, Leon Prevant was eating dinner at the bar with Jonathan Alkaitis. They’d met a little earlier, in what seemed at the time like a coincidental manner and seemed later like a trap. Leon had been at the bar, eating a salmon burger, alone because Marie was lying down upstairs with a headache. Alkaitis, who was drinking a pint of Guinness two stools down, struck up a conversation with the bartender and then expanded the conversation to include Leon. They were talking about Caiette, which, as it happened, Jonathan Alkaitis knew something about. “I actually own this property,” he said to Leon, almost apologetically. “It’s hard to get to, but that’s what I like about it.”
“I think I know what you mean,” Leon said. He was always looking for conversations, and it was a pleasure to think about something—anything!—other than financial insolvency and unemployment for a moment. “Do you own other hotels?”
“Just the one. I mostly work in finance.” Alkaitis had a couple of businesses in New York, he said, both of which involved investing other people’s money in the stock market for them. He wasn’t really taking on new clients these days, but he did on occasion make an exception.
The thing about Alkaitis, a woman from Philadelphia wrote some years later, in a victim impact statement that she read aloud at Alkaitis’s sentencing hearing, is he made you feel like you were joining a secret club. There was truth in this, Leon had to admit, when he read the transcript, but the other part of the equation was the man himself. What Alkaitis had was presence. He had a voice made for late-night radio, warm and reassuring. He radiated calm. He was a man utterly without bluster, confident but not arrogant, quick to smile at jokes. A steady, low-key, intelligent person, much more interested in listening than in talking about himself. He had that trick—and it was a trick, Leon realized later—of appearing utterly indifferent to what anyone thought of him, and in so doing provoking the opposite anxiety in other people: What does Alkaitis think of me? Later, in the years that he spent replaying this particular evening, Leon remembered a certain desire to impress him.
“This is slightly embarrassing,” Alkaitis said that night, when they’d left the bar and retired to a quieter corner of the lobby to discuss investments, “but you said you’re in shipping, and I real- ized as you said it that I’ve only the dimmest idea of what that actually means.”
Leon smiled. “You’re not alone in that. It’s a largely invisible industry, but nearly everything you’ve ever bought traveled over the water.”
“My made-in-China headphones, and whatnot.”
“Sure, yes, there’s an obvious one, but I really mean almost everything. Everything on and around us. Your socks. Our shoes. My aftershave. This glass in my hand. I could keep going, but I’ll spare you.”
“I’m embarrassed to admit that I never thought about it,” Jonathan said.
“No one does. You go to the store, you buy a banana, you don’t think about the men who piloted the banana through the Panama Canal. Why would you?” Easy now, he told himself. He was aware of a weakness for rhapsodizing on his industry at excessive length. “I have colleagues who resent the general public’s ignorance of the industry, but I think the fact that you don’t have to think about it proves that the whole system works.”
“The banana arrives on schedule.” Jonathan sipped his drink. “You must develop a kind of sixth sense. Here you are in the world, surrounded by all these objects that arrived by ship. You ever find it distracting, thinking about all those shipping routes, all those points of origin?”
“You’re only the second person I’ve ever met who guessed that,” Leon said.
The other was a psychic, a college friend of Marie’s who’d come into Toronto from Santa Fe, back when Leon was still based in Toronto, and the three of them had had dinner down- town at Saint Tropez, Marie’s favorite restaurant in their Toronto years. The psychic—Clarissa, he remembered now— was friendly and warm. He liked her immediately. He had an impression that psychics must very often be exploited by their friends and passing acquaintances, an impression not dispelled by Marie’s reminiscences about all the times she’d asked Clarissa for free advice, so over the course of the evening Leon went elaborately out of his way to avoid asking her anything, until finally, over dessert, curiosity overtook him: Was it ever deafening, he asked her, being in a crowded room? Was it like being in a room filled with radios tuned to overlapping frequencies, a clamor of voices broadcasting the mundane or horrifying details of dozens of lives? Clarissa smiled. “It’s like this,” she said, gesturing at the room around them, “it’s like being in a crowded restaurant. You can tune in to the conversation at the next table, or you can let that become background noise. Like the way you see shipping,” she said, and this remained in memory as one of the most delightful conversations Leon had ever had, because he’d never talked with anyone about the way he could tune in and out of shipping, like turning a dial on a radio. When he glanced across the table at Marie, for example: he could see the woman he loved, or he could shift frequencies and see the dress made in the U.K., the shoes made in China, the Italian leather handbag, or shift even further and see the Neptune-Avramidis shipping routes lit up on the map: the dress via Westbound Trans-Atlantic Route 3, the shoes via either the Trans-Pacific Eastbound 7 or the Shanghai–Los Angeles Eastbound Express, etc. Or further still, into the kind of language he’d never speak aloud, not even to Marie: there are tens of thousands of ships at sea at any given moment and he liked to imagine each one as a point of light, converging into rivers of electric brilliance over the night oceans, flowing through the narrow channels of the Suez and Panama Canals, the Strait of Gibraltar, around the edges of continents and out into the oceans, an unceasing movement that drove countries, a secret world that he loved so much.
When Walter walked within earshot of Leon Prevant and Jonathan Alkaitis, some time later, the conversation had shifted from Leon’s work to Alkaitis’s, from shipping to investment strategies. Walter understood none of it. Finance wasn’t his world. He didn’t speak the language. Someone on the day shift had covered the graffiti on the glass with reflective tape, an odd silvery streak of mirror on the darkened window. Two American actors were eating dinner at the bar.
“He left his first wife for her,” Larry said, nodding at them.
“Oh?” said Walter, who could not possibly have cared less. Twenty years of working in high-end hotels had cured him of any interest in celebrity. “I wanted to ask you,” he said, “just between the two of us, does the new guy seem a little off to you?”
Larry glanced theatrically over his shoulder and around the lobby, but Paul was elsewhere, mopping the corridor behind Reception in the heart of the house.
“Maybe a little depressed, is all,” Larry said. “Not the most sparkling personality I’ve ever come across.”
“Did he ask you about arriving guests last night?”
“How’d you know? Yeah, asked me when Jonathan Alkaitis was arriving.”
“And you told him …?”
“Well, you know my eyesight’s not great, and I’d only just come on shift. So I told him I wasn’t completely sure, but I thought the guy drinking whiskey in the lobby was Alkaitis. Didn’t realize my mistake till later. Why?” Larry was a reasonably discreet man, but on the other hand, the staff lived together in the same building in the woods and gossip was a kind of black-market currency.
“I’ll tell you later.” Walter still didn’t understand the motive, as he walked back toward Reception, but there was no doubt in his mind that Paul had committed the act. He glanced around the lobby, but no one seemed to require his attention at that moment, so he slipped through the staff door behind the reception desk. Paul was cleaning the dark window at the end of the hall.
The night houseman stopped what he was doing, and in his expression, Walter knew that he’d been correct in his suspicions. Paul had a hunted look.
“Where’d you get the acid marker?” Walter asked. “Is that something you can just buy at a hardware store, or did you have to make it yourself?”
“What are you talking about?” But Paul was a terrible liar. His voice had gone up half an octave.
“Why did you want Jonathan Alkaitis to see that disgusting message?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“This place means something to me,” Walter said. “Seeing it defaced like that . . .” It was the like that that bothered him the most, the utter vileness of the message on the glass, but he didn’t know how to explain this to Paul without opening a door into his personal life, and the thought of revealing anything remotely personal to this shiftless little creep was untenable. He couldn’t finish the sentence. He cleared his throat. “I’d like to give you an opportunity,” he said. “Pack up your things and leave on the first boat, and we don’t have to get the police involved.”
“I’m sorry.” Paul’s voice was a whisper. “I just—”
“You just thought you’d deface a hotel window, for the sake of delivering the most vicious, the most deranged—” Walter was sweating. “Why did you even do it?” But Paul had the furtive look of a boy searching for a plausible story, and Walter couldn’t stand to listen to another lie that night. “Look, just go,” he said. “I don’t care why you did it. I don’t want to look at you anymore. Put the cleaning supplies away, go back to your room, pack your bags, and tell Melissa that you want a ride to Grace Harbour as quickly as possible. If you’re still here at nine a.m., I’ll go to Raphael.”
“You don’t understand,” Paul said. “I’ve got all this debt—”
“If you needed the job that badly,” Walter said, “you probably shouldn’t have defaced the window.”
“You can’t even swallow broken glass.”
“I mean it’s actually physically impossible.”
“Seriously? That’s your defense?”
Paul flushed and looked away.
“Did you ever think of your sister in all of this?” Walter asked. “She got you the job interview here, didn’t she?”
“Vincent had nothing to do with this.”
“Are you going to leave? I’m in a generous mood and I don’t want to embarrass your sister, so I’m giving you a clean exit here, but if you’d prefer a criminal record, then by all means . . .”
“No, I’ll go.” Paul looked down at the cleaning supplies in his hands, as if unsure how they’d landed there. “I’m sorry.”
“You should go pack before I change my mind.”
“Thank you,” Paul said.
But the horror of it. Why don’t you swallow broken glass. Why don’t you die. Why don’t you cast everyone who loves you into perdition. He was thinking about his friend Rob again, forever sixteen, thinking about Rob’s mother’s face at the funeral. Walter sleep-walked through the rest of his shift and stayed up late to meet with Raphael in the morning. As he passed through the lobby at eight a.m., up past his bedtime and desperate for sleep, he caught sight of Paul down at the end of the pier, loading his duffel bags into the boat.
“Good morning,” Raphael said when Walter looked into his office. He was bright-eyed and freshly shaved. He and Walter lived in the same building, but in opposite time zones.
“I just saw Paul getting on the boat with his worldly belongings,” Walter said.
Raphael sighed. “I don’t know what happened. He came in here this morning with an incoherent story about how much he misses Vancouver, when the kid practically begged me for a change of scenery three months back.”
“He gave no reason?”
“None. We’ll start interviewing again. Anything else?” Raphael asked, and Walter, his defenses weakened by exhaustion, understood for the first time that Raphael didn’t like him very much. The realization landed with a sad little thud.
“No,” he said, “thank you. I’ll leave you to it.” On the walk back to the staff lodge, he found himself wishing that he’d been less angry when he’d spoken with Paul. All these hours later, he was beginning to wonder if he’d missed the point: when Paul said he had debts, did he mean that he needed the job at the hotel, or was he saying that someone had paid him to write the message on the glass? Because none of it actually made sense. It seemed obvious that Paul’s message was directed at Alkaitis, but what could Alkaitis possibly mean to him?
Leon Prevant and his wife departed that morning, followed two days later by Jonathan Alkaitis. When Walter came in for his shift on the night of Alkaitis’s departure, Khalil was working the bar, although it wasn’t his usual night: Vincent, he said, had taken a sudden vacation. A day later she called Raphael from Vancouver and told him she’d decided not to come back to the hotel, so someone from Housekeeping boxed up her belongings and put them in storage at the back of the laundry room.
The panel of glass was replaced at enormous expense, and the graffiti receded into memory. Spring passed into summer and then the beautiful chaos of the high season, the lobby crowded every night and a temperamental jazz quartet causing drama in the staff lodge when they weren’t delighting the guests, the quartet alternating with a pianist whose marijuana habit was tolerated because he could seemingly play any song ever written, the hotel fully booked and the staff almost doubled, Melissa piloting the boat back and forth to Grace Harbour all day and late into the evening.
Summer faded into autumn, then the quiet and the dark of the winter months, the rainstorms more frequent, the hotel half- empty, the staff quarters growing quiet with the departure of the seasonal workers. Walter slept through the days and arrived at his shift in the early evenings—the pleasure of long nights in the silent lobby, Larry by the door, Khalil at the bar, storms descend- ing and rising throughout the night—and sometimes joined his colleagues for a meal that was dinner for the night shift and breakfast for the day people, shared a few drinks sometimes with the kitchen staff, listened to jazz alone in his apartment, went for walks in and out of Caiette, ordered books in the mail that he read when he woke in the late afternoons.
On a stormy night in spring, Ella Kaspersky checked in. She was a regular at the hotel, a businesswoman from Chicago who liked to come here to escape “all the noise,” as she put it, a guest who was mostly notable because Jonathan Alkaitis had made it clear that he didn’t want to see her. Walter had no idea why Alkaitis was avoiding Kaspersky and frankly didn’t want to know, but when she arrived he did his customary check to make sure Alkaitis hadn’t made a last-minute booking. Alkaitis hadn’t visited the hotel in some time, he realized, longer than his usual interval between visits. When the lobby was quiet at two a.m., he ran a Google search on Alkaitis and found images from a recent charity fund-raiser, Alkaitis beaming in a tuxedo with a younger woman on his arm. She looked very familiar.
Walter enlarged the photo. The woman was Vincent. A gloss- ier version, with an expensive haircut and professional-grade makeup, but it was unmistakably her. She was wearing a metal- lic gown that must have cost about what she’d made in a month as a bartender here. The caption read Jonathan Alkaitis with his wife, Vincent.
Walter looked up from the screen, into the silent lobby. Nothing in his life had changed in the year since Vincent’s departure, but this was by his own design and his own desire. Khalil, now the full-time night bartender, was chatting with a couple who’d just arrived. Larry stood by the door with his hands clasped behind his back, eyes half-closed. Walter abandoned his post and walked out into the April night. He hoped Vincent was happy in that foreign country, in whatever strange new life she’d found for herself. He tried to imagine what it might be like to step into Jonathan Alkaitis’s life—the money, the houses, the private jet—but it was all incomprehensible to him. The night was clear and cold, moonless but the blaze of stars was over- whelming. Walter wouldn’t have imagined, in his previous life in downtown Toronto, that he’d fall in love with a place where the stars were so bright that he could see his shadow on a night with no moon. He wanted nothing that he didn’t already have.
But when he turned back to the hotel he was blindsided by the memory of the words written on the window a year ago, Why don’t you swallow broken glass, the whole unsettling mystery of it. The forest was a mass of undifferentiated shadow. He folded his arms against the chill and returned to the warmth and light of the lobby.
Excerpted from “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel. Copyright © 2020 by Emily St. John Mandel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Top Image: Emily St. John Mandel, "The Glass Hotel."