The Pink Hotel

If publishers think they have very clear ideas about ‘what’s selling’ right now, and that means what kind of stories, what kind of content, then are we going to see a lot of similar themes and preoccupations hitting the bookstores in successive waves? I wonder about this because the four novels I have received for review in 2011 have all been remarkably similar. There was Heather Gudenkauf’s novel, These Things Hidden, a tale of dreadful crimes committed by a 17-year-old girl growing up in a dysfunctional American family, there was the brilliantly done Repeat It Today With Tears by Anne Peile, about an incestuous relationship between a 16-year-old and the father she never knew, set in 1970s Britain. And now I’ve just read The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard, which is about a 17-year-old who learns that her natural mother, whom she never knew, has just died in an accident, and so heads off to L.A. on a stolen credit card to find out what she can about her. I’m getting this odd sense of a limited number of cards in a pack being shuffled over and again, with different permutations coming out. I’m not sure what the fourth novel is about but it certainly features a dysfunctional family.

But let’s stay with Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel, which opens with our young narrator crashing her mother’s wake, an event bearing a much greater resemblance to an all-night rave, and making off with a red suitcase full of her mother’s clothes and documents. The wake takes place in the Pink Hotel of the title, the hotel that her mother used to run with her husband, the red-haired and hot-tempered Richard, who is not quite so stoned as to be oblivious of our narrator’s theft. There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here, as our unnamed narrator begins to track down the men in her mother, Lily’s, past, wearing her clothes and tentatively stepping into her romantic shoes. Lily was a Rebecca for the 21st century, beautiful, fickle, feckless, elusive. She gave birth to our narrator when she was only 14 and then skipped abroad, leaving her child neglected and not much wanted with her father and his parents. Flailing around for an identity, it looks as if the narrator is trying to figure out who she is in relation to Lily, and to her borrowed life.  On the run from Richard, who wants his suitcase back, she tracks down August, Lily’s first husband, and Julie, Lily’s best friend, and she falls in love with David, a photographer for whom Lily once modeled. The narrator can’t quite work out David’s relationship to her mother, but then, she hasn’t confessed to being Lily’s daughter, either.

At first I admit that I didn’t get on with this novel. I couldn’t figure the narrator out, as she seemed incoherent and lacking any real presence in the first-person narrative. There was enough of her back story to know that she was both damaged goods and a tough piece of work. And yet at the same time she didn’t feel like that – the words were clever but empty, lacking in psychological depth. Plus I got annoyed with her hanging around her mother’s old men friends, not telling them who she was, but trying them on for size. It all felt like an adolescent pose – I’m so broken! But, I’m so tough! And why do these men hit on me when I chat them up wearing sexy clothes? So I actually put the book down around the 100 page mark and had a bit of a think as to why it was annoying me. It came to me that I’ve been putting in a lot of work recently, growing up that last bit and sorting myself out, and having done so, I was perhaps a whole lot less sympathetic to the youthful feminine perspective of the narrator. She doesn’t know who she is, or who she wants to be, but she can’t stop picking at herself in a quasi-self-harm way. What she wants is for someone to love her, and then maybe she’ll see herself reflected in his eyes. I’m just not that young any more, you know? And I spent a lot of time in the early stages of the novel wishing unfairly she’d grow up.

But once I’d recognized that my perspective was not aligned with that of the narrator, I found I could enjoy the novel for what it was.  I began to get into the story and to appreciate the qualities of the writing – and it is very well written. The depiction of L.A. is fantastic. This isn’t the rich and glamorous L.A. we see in the movies, but its poor, polluted, grubby underside, a melting pot of nationalities and a tide of bit parts and hangers-on, all shimmering in the desert heat. There are some quirky scenes that really spring off the page – the narrator tracking down a set of ancient twin sisters whom her mother used to nurse, the Korean pet shop doubling as a film location where she gets a job as a script supervisor, the Armenian and Thai quarter where she lives with David. All this part of the story I loved, and it had a good ending too, with an interesting twist (even if the happy ending raises a few questions). So on the whole, I would recommend this novel, particularly if you like reading stories of young women with unhappy pasts who need to find themselves.

There was only one element that never got properly sorted out that troubled me: the narrator is endlessly fascinated by her own blood – she bites her fingers and her lip until they bleed, she drips wax on her thighs to burn them, she wishes David would hit her. I seem to have read SO much lately about women’s self-destructive tendencies and I feel I want to say to these authors and their characters, Ladies, please, put the razor blades away and think of something else to do! How many novels out there feature men who, because of their impoverished relationships to their parents, rush around self-harming? Quite. They say: Oh whatever; heck, I guess I’d better go save the world instead. Is it just me who feels this way? I want to see those women turning their eyes away from their navels and finding a way forward by engaging with the world, changing what’s wrong, making a decent space for themselves, attending to bigger problems. Is it possible to write literary fiction in which women do as much as they think? I’d certainly be interested in reading it.

13 thoughts on “The Pink Hotel

  1. It does sound as though you need a break from this sort of story–too much of the same thing back to back does weigh a person down. I have to agree with you that male characters get to have far too much of the fun–how often do you see an action heroine? Or a female character wielding a sword or infiltrating a spy ring or something just exciting rather than a little morbid (cutting yourself)?

  2. For a female action heroine, I would recommend you read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as an antidote, but you already have!

  3. I too have noticed certain themes just seem to all appear at once. Two of the smallish number of new releases I’ve read this year both involved girls who went missing, and I know of at least one other coming out sometime this spring. I’m not particularly drawn to that topic (but don’t avoid it), yet two books in the space of a month landed in my lap. I can’t help but wonder why.

  4. I don’t know, I think you are being awfully forgiving here…I haven’t read the book (so should probably just keep quiet!), but I’m often suspicious of this type of story. Unless it is EXTREMELY well-written and the writing is what makes the story and the perspective unique, I can’t help considering it a bit like a made-for-TV movie, a bit cliché, a bit too easy. Was the writing really that good?

  5. I’ve noticed that publishers tend to publish the same kinds of stories too so that everything starts to sound the same and I pick up a new book and think, ugh, not another xyz story! In addition, I’d like to copy and paste Michelle’s comment into mine🙂

  6. When I was working for an editor I often had to review many books written in the same vein because they just believed that was what would sell at the moment. It’s like stealing someone else’s recipe. Only they are not aware the recipe isn’t complete. You have a few basic ingredients, that’s it. One major success will trigger a flood of similar novels. I’m not sure which one would be the source for those you have just been reading. Abuse and self-mutilation sounds like the litrary counterpart to vampires.
    I think there are also a fair amount of male characters hurting themselves. There are a lot of male drug addicts and alcoholics in books. Still, I agree, I love to read about strong female characters and that is a reason why I enjoy YA and fantasy. Many fantasy novels have astonishing female heroines. A friend of mine once pointed out to me that there is no weak woman in any of the novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley for example. Bit sad that they get shoved into the fantasy genre.

  7. Hmm, I wonder what happened to my comment? I must not have pressed a button. Anyway, yes, I do like female characters that do. This reminds me of the fin de siecle novel “The Woman Who Did” which was mostly about the author writing about free love yet making sure his female character suffered for it. The novel contemporary with it, “Esther Waters” is about a woman who does various things, including having a baby on her own. I much preferred Esther Waters.

  8. The masochistic female protagonist you describe here reminds me of the movie “The Secretary”… she carries a kit to cut herself, even at work. Another thing, that’s about Du Maurier’s Rebecca. I recently read it and have to admit I was disappointed. I mean, the female character falls into holes which she digs for herself… not really out of her own innocence, but out of the writer making her to be so ignorant. I wonder if this book is a bit like that. Unlike Jane Eyre, who is a strong and admirable character despite her life circumstances, I have a hard time trying to like the female protagonist with no name in Rebecca.

  9. This isn’t the rich and glamorous L.A. we see in the movies, but its poor, polluted, grubby underside, a melting pot of nationalities and a tide of bit parts and hangers-on, all shimmering in the desert heat.

    I love literary depictions of this LA.

    On the other hand, I too am weary of overly young-seeming, self-harming female protagonists who indulge in a lot of navel-gazing while semi-consciously seducing older men. In general I find myself very impatient with adolescent angst lately.

    I’m not sure it’s a question of doing versus thinking, necessarily…I’m currently reading Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, and they’re very “thinky” (as a friend of mine would say) but her level of insight and careful dissection of thought processes and ontological states is stunning. Not that she and Sartre never DID anything – but it’s the thinking that really makes the book. Maybe what I’m after is high-quality, intelligent thought, rather than angsty navel-gazing.

  10. Interesting the way you describe the process of realizing why you weren’t getting on with the book. It’s good, I think, to recognize how our own current situation affects how we read. The book I’m reading now, Arthur Phillips’s The Tragedy of Arthur is a lot about the main character’s horrible relationship with his father and how he reacts to it. He goes out into the world and does stuff — traveling, writing, making stupid mistakes — but I like how thoughtful he is about it and how self-aware. I’m not thinking of women who responded in a similar way …

  11. Danielle – I admit I really do like a bit of variety. Although to be fair, the writing styles have all been very different. It’s true that you don’t see enough action women – the only place they’re allowed out (occasionally) is in genre fiction, as far as I can see, where you DO find women running businesses and even being spies. (I’m thinking of Helen Fielding and her hilarious book about Olivia Joules!)

    Ruthiella – lol! And there were a few feminist issues with Lisbeth Salander too. But now I’m just being picky – she was certainly an all action girl.

    Teresa – oho, girls going missing. I’m really glad I’m not alone in noticing this. How many crime novels out there are about missing children, I wonder? It’s an easy button to press, you have to think.

    Michelle – to begin with I found the style off-putting. It was very descriptive, but not in a way that showed psychological depth. But I do think that from about 100 pages in the writing got a lot better and there were many passages that I ended up admiring a great deal. Is that enough? I hear you cry… and… I’m not sure. I really wished that the self-harm element wasn’t there – whenever it went away, I found myself enjoying the book much more.

    Stefanie – lol! I often feel that way about Michelle’s comments myself! I’m very glad if you have noticed this too, and it’s not just me!

    Caroline – you know, I was thinking that. That genre fiction is the place where women are allowed to act positively. What sort of message does that give out? I also think you’re onto something with that violence being a by-product of the vampire fascination. There is such a tendency in publishers to be looking for the same sort of thing, in a mistaken belief that ‘x’ is selling now and ‘y’ isn’t. Does it really work that way? I have never bought a book in my life because it reminded me of another – that’s about the ONLY reason I haven’t used for buying books!🙂

    Lilian – Esther Waters sounds vaguely familiar and I will have to look it up. Oh why do male authors so often make the female characters pay. All the classics insisted on this – Flaubert, Zola, Balzac, Gide, Proust… I presume it happened in other countries too. Time for girls to write about themselves in new ways, I think.

    Arti – we have ‘The Secretary’ although I haven’t seen it (my husband has – I got squeamish about the violence). It’s definitely a niche interest – the Surrealists liked cutting up women, mostly figuratively, but it didn’t take much to transfer it to the physical. I read Rebecca when I was a young girl and loved it then, but at the time my perspective would have been very close to the narrator’s – I can quite understand why it wouldn’t work for you now.

    Emily – ah what a wise perspective. I am a big fan of Simone de Beauvoir’s (as were all my female students – it’s surprising how many of them evoked her as a presence in their lives, asking at moments of crisis ‘Now what would Simone do?). She was the epitome of the philosophical thinker (although hopeless when in love – she was a mess with men). You’re quite right that insightful thinking makes for rewarding reading.

    Pete – funnily enough, I had intended to read more YA fiction this year as I have read hardly any! But my impression is that YA is where all the new exciting stuff is happening. I will certainly check out the list!

    Dorothy – that book you are reading sounds really interesting! I’m already looking forward to your review. I rather like figuring out where I am in the process of reading – I had to do it formally as an academic, but I still just like it. It makes you aware of how much impinges on reading, and how you can approach a book very differently from one day to the next, almost. I’m very curious about that!

  12. Pingback: Orange Reading: The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard | Iris on Books

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