In 2020, six years after her huge bestseller “Station Eleven” Emily St. John Mandel published “The Glass Hotel,” a novel about a Ponzi scheme I found compelling and have read twice—one of those alternatively structured novels that follows a diverse cast I tend to gravitate toward.
Less than two years later came “Sea of Tranquility.” I thought: Mandel is on a creative tear. She’s wholly juiced up and her talent must be overflowing.
But then I read “Sea of Tranquility.”
I know I’m in the minority. The novel has received rave reviews. And Mandel is definitely a brilliant writer. But this novel fell short for me. Maybe because it’s a speculative novel about time travel—and I’m not a time-travel kind of guy. Maybe because it feels a little unpolished, like Mandel rushed through the writing in a feverish burst of creativity. There’s dialog that feels less than authentic. The high concept takes precedence over the characters, who feel less than fully formed, lacking desire and motivation, and instead exist in service to the idea of time travel.
Plotwise, the earth is partially uninhabitable a few hundred years into to future, but there are now moon colonies and outer colonies that humans have built and populated. In different centuries, several characters experience a strange visual and auditory disturbance, which turns out to be a disruption in time. A character named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts travels through time to investigate each instance.
The novel poses metaphysical questions: Are we living in a simulation? Do multiverses exist (other than in Facebook’s marketing materials)? Is time fluid and non-linear?
Those are great questions for a speculative novel, but this book just didn’t grab me. I much preferred Mandel’s other novels. In addition to “The Glass Hotel” I highly recommend her first novel, “Last Night in Montreal,” which is a gritty mystery surrounding a young woman compelled to abandon people in her life and assume new identities.