It was a beautiful, hot June day. I lounged in a lawn chair, lost in Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, the first of a duology. The characters in this spare, realistic novel are linked, however remotely, to the Hotel Caiette, an isolated glass luxury hotel on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. It is the property of Jonathan Alkaitis, a wealthy man who ruins thousands of lives with a Ponzi scheme. There is a large cast of characters, among them two characters fascinated by the shipping industry: Leon, a shipping executive who meets Jonathan at the hotel and becomes one of his investors; and a young woman, Vincent, a former bartender at the hotel who follows Jonathan to Manhattan and poses as his trophy wife. After Jonathan is arrested, she becomes a cook on a ship, where she makes videos of the ocean and finds peace.
The odd thing about the duology is that the two books are of different genres. Sea of Tranquility is a haunting literary science fiction novel. It is the better of the two books, a genre-bending masterpiece. But you don’t have to read them in order to understand them. I read the second book first.
Set partly on Earth and partly on a moon colony, Sea of Tranquility follows a group of characters who inhabit three distinct timelines: the early 20th century, the 21st century (2020 to 2023), and the twenty-third century.
There is a moment that changes everything, when a time traveler from the twenty-third century breaks the rules and warns a novelist on a book tour about the outbreak of a pandemic. He tells her to go home to her family on the moon and that changes history.,\ Ironically, her novel is about a pandemic. (By the way, Mandel is best-known for her dystopian pandemic novel, Station Eleven, which was made into an excellent HBO series.)
There are two sections in the book titled “The Last Book Tour on Earth.” Mandel’s description of the writer’s exhaustion from travel and talking, from signing books and going home to identical rooms in Marriotts in different cities, was so vivid that I decided not to go to her reading. I could picture how exhausted she would be, even if she did her best to be vivacious.
But as I said, I was reading The Glass Hotel the other day. After I finished, I started reading a tattered used paperback copy of T. C. Boyle’s The Terranauts. Then my husband came home, we went inside, we got immersed in conversation, and I left both books outside.
And it rained last night! I left the books out in the rain.
So excuse me for not writing about Boyle’s novel. Both books are soaking wet, and are now in the recycle bin! (I do have one other Boyle novel, so I will substitute it for The Terranauts , eventually.)