Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review: Hotel du Lac

This review of Hotel du Lac originally appeared on Boston Bibliophile in January 2011.

Hotel du Lac is a quiet novel that nonetheless has a lot to say. Winner of the 1984 Booker Prize, it's the story of Edith Hope, a writer on a self-imposed exile at an out-of-season Swiss hotel, which she shares with a small group of (mostly) women. Mrs. Iris Pusey is a narcissistic grande dame on perpetual holiday with her spinster daughter Jennifer; their primary occupation is consumption- shopping and eating. Monica is a tall, striking woman accompanied by a small dog but otherwise alone, a single middle-aged woman looking for what the Puseys already have, a wealthy man to support her. An older woman also resides at the hotel, staying on until the end of the season, at which time her family will send her elsewhere to be looked after. And then there is Edith, alone for entirely different reasons, who forms slight attachments to each but remains definitively on her own.

What we do know about Edith is that she's desperately in love with David, a married man and art dealer, to whom she writes detailed letters about the people and goings on at the hotel. But David is not the primary scandal she's escaping, and he won't be her redemption, either. That story unfolds slowly as Edith gets to know a Mr. Neville, a single and well-off man also in residence at this placid hotel that nonetheless buzzes with the quiet desperation of its inhabitants.

At the core of this slim novel is character- Brookner's and Edith's sharp character studies of the ladies, especially the Puseys, and Edith's own arc as she makes difficult choices about the next stage of her life. For a long stretch her future is open-ended and uncertain as she steps through each day walking the town, writing and navigating the genteel minefield of the other ladies' own emotional landscapes. The setting reflects Edith's state of mind, perpetually gray and blank. Color comes from the ladies' clothing and conversation. She's recovering from a major trauma, and more than that, has to decide what to do next; uncertainty is the dominant tone. Towards the end decisions agendas are revealed that change that landscape and lead to Edith's final choice, and it feels so right and well-drawn that it's hard to imagine it turning out any other way.

Hotel du Lac is a fine literary read that readers of thoughtful womens' fiction will savor and enjoy. Brookner mixes pathos and humor- her portrait of Mrs. Pusey in particular has moments of real hilarity- in a novel that resembles Jane Austen written in a contemporary style, but with an emphasis on the pathos. She uses the very Austenian theme of women's economic vulnerability but instead of marriage solving life's problems, she asks if the material rewards of dependence engender a kind of complacency or even rot. But the novel is smarter than to be so simple-minded in its message; Brookner also sets up contrasts that ask if being alone is the worth the price it demands as well. Overall thoughtful, thought-provoking and lovely, Hotel du Lac is a beautifully crafted narrative that will reward the careful reader.

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