Cover image of "The Glass Hotel," a novel about a Wall Street scandal

As you may recall, a Wall Street investment advisor named Bernard Madoff was arrested in December 2008 for having operated the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Prosecutors estimated the fraud amounted to $64.8 billion, the sum of the accounts of his 4,800 clients. As of 2020, the account-holders (and their lawyers) had received just $14.4 billion in settlements—about 22 cents on the dollar, though more than a decade later. The scandal generated massive publicity and a flood of articles and books on the scandal. More recently, the Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel offered a story about the consequences of a lookalike Ponzi scheme in The Glass Hotel.

The principal characters

Mandel’s novel is not a straightforward account of a Wall Street scandal. In fact, the lookalike Ponzi scheme doesn’t come to light until the story is well underway. She focuses our attention on a young Canadian woman named Vincent, her half-brother Paul, and their coworkers at an isolated hotel on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. It is there as she is tending bar that a much older man named Jonathan Alkaitas becomes infatuated with her and persuades her to live with him, acting as his wife without benefit of marriage. Jonathan, it turns out, owns the hotel and a great deal more besides. He operates a Wall Street investment firm with a reputation—like Madoff’s—for uniquely large and consistent profits.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (2020) 320 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of a settlement near the "glass hotel" of this novel about a Wall Street scandal
A settlement on northern Vancouver Island like the fictional village of Kayette in the novel. Image: Happiest Outdoors

This Ponzi scheme involves thousands on the outside and in

As we become aware of the fraud Jonathan is operating, Vincent seems oblivious. She is content to be his “trophy wife” and enjoy the opulence of his many homes, and his private jet. The endless luxuries he lavishes on her dull her senses. Meanwhile, we meet some of Jonathan’s clients, the staff he employs in legitimate work on the 18th floor of his building—and the witting crew on the 17th, all of them content to take home exorbitant salaries and bonuses as they steal the clients’ money.

When the fraud is eventually discovered and the SEC, FBI, and police arrive in force, we begin to see the consequences for the clients, the staff, Jonathan’s daughter—and Vincent. Jonathan receives a sentence of 170 years in federal prison. There, he rubs shoulders with aging Mafia bosses and white-collar criminals like himself. Vincent disappears, but we follow her during the years after the end of her idyll in luxury.

With The Glass Hotel, Mandel departs from the science fiction genre of her two other recent novels, Station Eleven and Sea of Tranquility. However, as with those novels, her primary concern is with character development. The Glass Hotel leaves the reader with a vivid sense of having lived the lives of the fascinating people in her story.

About the author

Photo of Emily St. John Mandel, author of this novel about a Wall Street scandal
Emily St. John Mandel in 2022. Image: Brad Torchia – The Guardian

Emily St. John Mandel was born in British Columbia in 1979. She studied at the School of Toronto Dance Theater but has built a career as a novelist and essayist. The Glass Hotel is one of the six novels she has written to date. Like her better-known work, Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel has been translated into many languages and published around the world.

For more reading

I’ve reviewed two of the author’s other novels:

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