Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies by Ellen Cooney

A Private Hotel for Gentle LadiesA 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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  1. Hi, I am a new follower from the A to Z challenge. Thank you for the book review. Ordinarily, I only add books to my already over stacked, TBR list, that someone highly recommends. I don't know exactly what it was about your review, but something piqued my interest and I am eager to read this story. Perhaps it's because you wrote that many readers where turned off by the ending. Reviews such as this, somehow, work as a challenge in my mind. I can't explain it, but I feel the need to read through to the end and decide for myself if I agree with the masses or not. I look forward to reading Cooney's book and more of your blog post.

    PS. If my comment manages to make it to your blog, I would like to offer a suggestion. Have you considered removing the word verification from your comment section? The A to Z host explained how to do this and the necessity of it, for the challenge. Blogger has an excellent spam filter without the word verification. The tiny words and numbers are nearly impossible for some of us older folks to read and it always takes me more than one attempt. If I don't get it right the second time, I give up. If you hope to attract more followers and commenters, it would be nice if you made it easier for them to leave comments. Just a thought!

    1. I did have word verification turned off, but I was getting such a flood of spam that I had to put it back up. It's possible the moderation queue may halt potential spammers, but I haven't been willing to risk it. I'll definitely mull it over.

      I'm glad my review caught your interest. I often feel similarly about a review, that I have to see for myself. I often find myself disagreeing with other readers and disliking what everyone loved, or liking what everyone hated.

      Ellen Cooney isn't a well-known writer, but I've enjoyed everything I've read of hers. She has a flowing, poetic style that I find engaging, and her heroines are flawed but admirable. I particularly liked Lambrusco, about an opera singer during WWII.

      Thanks for dropping by!

    2. I decided to remove word verification, at least on a trial basis. Fingers crossed that moderated comments will catch the worst of the offenders.