By Laura van den Berg
Good Reads Rating: 3.4 out of 5
GL Rating: 6 out of 11
The Third Hotel is an ambitious, clever, and energetic novel that achieves critical mass as a story despite some minor issues with characterization, narrative arc, and a scope that favors breadth over depth. I liked it more than Lake Success, Manhattan Beach, and The Sellout, if that helps. (My updated rankings are here.)
I found the first 30 pages of the book to be the strongest, and they were good enough that it carried me through the rest of it, which was merely “good” as opposed to fantastic. The premise and the setting were rich and evocative. The shattered-identity-in-an-exotic-locale motif reminded me of Graham Greene and Paul Bowles.
As the story opens, the protagonist, Clare, who sells elevators in the mid-west (which: LOL), is at a film festival in Havana. Her husband, we learn, is a film critic who was recently killed in an accident. The novel concerns itself with her attempts to process this recent trauma.
Van den Berg’s approach to the Cuba story line, which forms the novel’s dramatic core, brings some innovative twists to conventions you see in stories with similar themes. I won’t go into detail about it because (a) I hate plot summaries, and (b) you will enjoy the book more if you go into it blind.
The Third Hotel had a kind of fleeting, kaleidoscopic story structure. There were many themes, ideas, characters, mini story lines, and riffs in general tucked into a slender book (209 pages). There are repeated references to suicide. We get bits on the history of zombies, critical theory as applied to horror movies, life in surveillance states. Personally I would have liked to have seen some of these notes sustained for longer, although this seemed to be less of an issue for other people I know who read the book. Having read the book once, and quickly, I did not see the relevance of the repeated references to suicide. I may have just missed it. And the cultural theory around horror films was one of the book’s highlights, but van den Berg puts that to bed rather early in the novel.
The profusion of themes coincides with waves of fleeting conversations with inconsequential characters. Reading the novel felt at times like watching a spider weave a web after drinking a pint of espresso. I suspect this was by design, and was also the point of the novel. This rootlessness is part of who Clare is, and it’s exacerbated by her husband’s death. She’s constantly moving because she’s trapped.
The trouble is that Clare’s meanderings wind up feeling a bit anticlimactic. It’s a book of micro-episodes, which is fine, but, in my opinion, they did not always effectively further the plot or our understanding of Clare. The chase that drives the first two-thirds of the story is resolved and then, again, dropped. I can’t help but feel that the book would have had more of an impact if the climax (ha ha) of that story occurred closer to the end of the story.
Clare’s character is also somewhat passive; her goals vaporous. She is, basically, something like a ghost. She spends a lot of time observing from peripheries.
Anyway, these quibbles with the book are by no means fatal. If you’re looking for a fun, thought-provoking story, The Third Hotel is worth a read. Laura van den Berg is a gifted writer, and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next. My completely scientific and objectively correct opinion is that van den Berg’s best novel is still in front of her.