The Pink Hotel, by Anna Stothard
Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel is a grimy world, of dirty scabs, dingy walls, and one hot sweaty L.A. summer. The protagonist is an unnamed seventeen-year-old girl who flies to Los Angeles for her unknown mother’s funeral. Her mother, Lily, owned the titular hotel, and our girl steals a suitcase of Lily’s clothes and letters at the wake, following the hints and pictures she finds in it to track people from her mother’s life, and so get to know Lily. The story is moved by Lily, but she isn’t the focal point, it’s her daughter’s coming-of-age.
It took me a little while to warm to the girl in the story. First person narratives often seem annoying and incredibly self-interested, with more time spent navel gazing than advancing a story – telling not showing. The protagonist is a rough tomboy, raised by her stiff-upper lip father, and consequently, is a little immature and detached. She steals her father’s credit card, steals Lily’s suitcase, shoplifts for fun, and scrapes her knuckles down brick walls out of boredom. Over the course of the story, however, this tomboy accesses her absentee mother’s influence, playing dress up in her mother’s clothes and shoes at seventeen rather than three. Beyond that, and more influential on the character, is the fact that for the first time in her life she is free. Free from her father’s devotion to his cafe and penny-pinching, free from the passing of her grandparents which weighs more heavily on her than her mother’s abandonment did, free from school, being a teenager, free from the monotony of routine life.
Despite the ragged characters, each with some sort of chemical dependency, and the potential vulnerability of the girl, unworldly and alone in an infamous city, the book never devolves into a thriller, frightening the reader for cheap action. She doesn’t lead a charmed life, a Pollyanna dancing from flower-to-flower, there are some tense scenes and some creepy characters. But the girl is never a victim.
Stothard’s style is clear, smooth, and interesting even when the subject matter gets a little rough. She writes like someone who has known alcoholics and junkies, but known them as friends, not as pitiable messes. The cheap glitz and substance abuse is viewed from a non-judgmental point, it’s not something that is promoted by the writer or protagonist, but it is also taken as a legitimate choice made by consenting adults. Perhaps the view through a distant seventeen-year old English girl helps keep the story from spiraling into a big love story to L.A. Many big cities, (L.A., New York, London) seem to get caught up in their own mythos, especially as portrayed by the media, but for our girl L.A. is simply where her mother’s wake is, not a dream inside a fantasy where she has pinned her hopes. It’s her fresh start because that was the place she ended up.