Sunday, April 14, 2013
Review: A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies by Ellen Cooney
A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies by Ellen Cooney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the fourth book I've read on my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, which is comprised of books I've been meaning to read but hadn't gotten around to. Once again, I'm shaking my head at myself, wondering why I'd waited so long.
In this case, the answer is that, on its surface, this is another "cheating book." The action is sparked when Charlotte Heath, a headstrong young wife recovers from a long illness to discover her husband kissing another woman. She runs away to Boston, where she holes up in the Beechmont, which is not a fine hotel for upright citizens at all, but a place where the ladies' physical needs are serviced by male staff members.
Ellen Cooney taught Creative Writing one semester at the University of Maine at Farmington, and I was lucky enough to be in her class. She'd asked me to come read to her students at MIT, but I'd needed an operation during the week I would've taken her up on her invitation. My acquaintance with Ms. Cooney certainly makes me more tolerant of certain literary conventions I wouldn't put up with by other writers. But I also think I'd be missing out on some lovely writing.
Charlotte is far from the perfect narrator. She isn't an unreliable narrator, but she is unworldly, uninterested in current events, and indecisive. She keeps her secrets, even from the reader, and makes decisions based on fleeting emotions. She has an appreciation for Shakespeare beyond that of her stuffy in-laws, but she's no scholar, and she gets as caught up in the romanticism as any high school student.
A reader might get to the ending with no idea as to why she makes the decision she does. I know, but not in any way I can vocalize. It's in the spaces between, in the things she doesn't articulate. It's in what she values, and where she can get what she needs. I didn't need her explanation of why she decides what she does, but some readers might. Some readers might vehemently disagree with her decision, too. I doubt I'd've done the same, in her place, but then, I'm living over a century later, aren't I?
This is the sort of historical fiction that couldn't have taken place, but that might have. Not the details; I've never heard of a counterpart to the Beechmont, nor of the baby races detailed in one chapter late in the book. But Charlotte Heath may have existed, she may have fled her husband for the very reason she does in the book, and she may have stepped on a very similar path, once. The people inhabiting this book feel flawed and human and like they really could've existed in that time period.
I enjoyed this book, and, while I usually like to be in a perspective character's head a bit more, I thought it was used to good effect. I didn't expect the ending I got, and I can see where it turned off other readers. But, after I slept on it, it seemed like the ending this story required.
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