‘What actually does our protagonist discover, either about her mother or about herself through the journey she goes on?’ – The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard

“Soft” was my first thought when I picked up my copy of The Pink Hotel. It looks like a soft book, soft colours on the front, nothing too challenging. I know you should never judge a book by its cover, but you can often get a good idea of the direction of travel of the journey you’re about to go on. And in this case I wasn’t wrong.

It’s a very nicely written story about a seventeen-year old girl’s slightly risky trip from London to LA following the untimely death of the almost unfeasibly young mother she never knew. She lives with her father and his wife, and following her exclusion from school, she works with them in the family café.  Her mother had left her with her father and his family almost as soon as she’d been born, and sometime later travelled to America where she apparently had a series of adventures (everyone does in America). Our protagonist (whose name you are never told) receives a phone call to tell her that her mother has died, jumps on a plane to LA and arrives in the middle of the wake.

The book follows her adventures for the next month or two, as she tries to piece together the fragments of her mother’s life, using various items of clothing and photographs that she steals from the wake as waymarkers.

She is a curious mixture of slightly wayward young adult and cocky twenty-something, as I suppose many seventeen-year-olds are, but there is very little in her personality that we find out about that is actually endearing, note-worthy or even interesting. She’s had a fairly normal (for late twentieth/early twenty-first century London) upbringing – Dad, step-mum, grandparents, all paying attention to her in their own way. Regular schooling: she was, of course, a naturally bright student but didn’t apply herself because it didn’t interest her (is it just me, or is this a recurring feature in too much literature?). She had a few friends, but none particularly close. She was more interested in discovering her physical responses to pain, and playing soccer than most other things. She got into minor scrapes and was finally expelled from school after an accidental copycat prank went horribly wrong. So far, so uninspiring. And then the phone call and the flight to LA.

She didn’t know that her mother was married, or that she was part-owner of a hotel on Venice Beach. She didn’t know who the important people in her mother’s life were, but she learns more about them from snatches of conversation and the photographs and letters in the stolen suitcase. She ends up sleeping with two of her mother’s former lovers, using sex as a currency to find out what she wants to know, or as a tool to engender trust and some kind of stability. She is stalked by her mother’s husband, who wants to get the suitcase back and sends the heavies round every now and then to rough her up or scare her. She meets up with bar-owners and former patients of her mother’s, and doesn’t seem to learn a whole lot from them; her mother was universally liked, had a chaotic lifestyle (that her daughter is well on the way to inheriting) and didn’t deserve to die so young.

Time is an unspecific construct throughout the book – it seems to be set roughly in the present, or within the last ten years, but every now and then the author makes a statement with the benefit of futuresight looking backwards at now. Days seem to go on for too long with too many hours in them; weeks pass in the blink of an eye. I don’t need novels to be regular as clockwork, but it’s sometimes difficult to follow a narrative if there’s no obvious pattern to what is on the surface a fairly regular story of self-discovery.

Or is it? What actually does our protagonist discover, either about her mother or about herself through the journey she goes on? Well, not a whole lot, to be honest. There is closure of sorts at the end of the novel, but it’s too swift, too sudden and too unclear after the meanderings and detailed narratives of the book’s body. There are loose ends that aren’t explained, and the main thrust of the novel, for me, finding out exactly how her mother died, is too simplistic, too almost childish to be believable. And it’s not necessary to the storyline. You shouldn’t lie to people you care about, but there’s no indication that she comes clean about all her lies at the end. Bad guys turn out to be not quite so bad, and good guys turn out to be not quite so good. Well isn’t that what you learn about life as you grow up? Maybe growing up is just the journey that she is taking, but she goes a peculiar way around getting there.

Anna Stothard has a very compact writing style; she’s astute with words and uses them well. But there wasn’t much in The Pink Hotel for me to recommend unfortunately. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s a pleasant way to spend some time.

Any Cop?: Ultimately I was left feeling as though I wanted more from the novel. I wanted to be able to like the main character, to see some parts of me in her, or at least to be able to understand her actions. I got none of these. And the too-fast ending didn’t help explain. It’s certainly a long way from being a poor book, but it’s too soft, too unclear and too indistinct to make much of an impact on me.

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