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.