In her debut novel, “Glassworks,” Olivia Wolfgang-Smith follows multiple generations of a family over the course of a century, as they struggle to discover and define themselves.
GLASSWORKS, by Olivia Wolfgang-Smith
I smashed a bottle while reading Olivia Wolfgang-Smith’s debut novel, “Glassworks.” I had the book in one hand and a container of hair oil in the other, and the bottle slipped, ricocheted off the sink and shattered. Once I’d processed my untimely jolt away from the novel, I smiled at the irony. In “Glassworks,” everything breaks. Conversations are interrupted by wrecked plates, bodies harmed and psyches laid bare. In this story, you have to learn to navigate destruction.
“Glassworks” is a panoramic family saga told in four novellas, each peering over the shoulder of the preceding generation. We follow Agnes in 1910; her son, Edward, in 1938; his daughter, Novak, in 1986; and Flip, the daughter of a woman Novak loves, in 2015. Their tale is one of fracturing and reforming — much like the glass each character somehow works with. They all wrestle with similar questions: How do you develop a self, what defines a legacy, and what do you need to destroy to create it?
The book opens with Agnes Carter, a wealthy donor to a Boston university, who hires Ignace Novak, a naturalist and glassblower, to create scientific models. Privately, Agnes is tormented by a violent, money-squandering husband. Her story introduces a motif that runs throughout “Glassworks” — the split self. Agnes is a woman divided between happiness and obligation. She quietly falls in love with Ignace, who rocks from moments of brilliance to deep mental illness. Their relationship is defined by their proximity to both beauty and brutality, building and breaking. Wolfgang-Smith’s writing sings within this tension.
When Ignace is stung by a honeybee, the pair retrieve its squashed carcass and Agnes starts to draw it. The bee sketch inspires a tiny glass model, which is then passed down the generations. It becomes a powerful metaphor. “The honeybee: dangerous with a power far beyond its size, but only at the price of self-annihilation.”
Agnes’s story culminates in a stomach-lurching act of violence that releases her from a broken, deeply masculine world. In her new reality, “there would be no subdivision into separate selves for work, study, marriage, motherhood, society, love,” she declares. “There would only be the Novaks, whole and resonant.”
The novel then jumps to Agnes and Ignace’s son, Edward, who is also grappling with an existential split — he’s secretly drawn to religion. While working as a glassblowing apprentice, he sneaks away to find peace in empty church pews. Then he meets Charlotte, the boisterous daughter of an influential family. As they fall in love, Edward is unwittingly dragged from his uninterested family to her corrupt one, and he watches himself turn from the morals he had held so dear.
Then “Glassworks” pivots to Edward’s daughter, Novak, a “thick-skinned, self-sustaining” window washer. Her story, set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, explores both the power and vulnerability of being seen. Novak carries the family’s glass bee as she finds a home in queer Manhattan circles, “the amorphous marginal magic family found by noticing each other.” But her tale is also peppered with disillusionment — she despairs at a friend’s abusive relationship, and embarks on an ill-fated romance with Cecily, a gender-bending dancer.
It’s only in meeting Cecily’s daughter, Flip, who is stuck in a miserable job at a company that turns cremains into glass keepsakes, that we glimpse an optimistic future. Flip is lonely and bored, her closest relationships strained. She is perhaps the most unlikely character to change this family’s fortunes, but she commits an audacious act of courage, a move that could end a legacy of faltering identities.
“Glassworks” is so deeply imagined and immersive that reading it felt like an invitation: Shatter what needs to be shattered and mold your story from what’s left. This is a dark read — touching on domestic abuse, homophobia and trauma — but each novella repeats and reimagines a stern mantra coined by Agnes: “Surviving hardship enriches life, and strengthens us to meet it.” Perhaps that’s true even when it takes breaking through the most fortified, deeply ingrained barriers to get there. I needed this novel, both for its cathartic devastation and the hope found in its wreckage. And weeks later, my bathroom tiles are still slippery.
Eleanor Dunn is a social media editor at The Times.
GLASSWORKS | By Olivia Wolfgang-Smith | 356 pp. | Bloomsbury | $28.99