How well do we really know other people — or ourselves? That’s the provocative question that drives Anna Stothard’s astonishing American debut, long-listed for the Orange Prize.
“The Pink Hotel” starts with the reek “of cigarette ash and stale perfume,” introducing an unnamed teenage girl who has jumped a plane to Los Angeles from her UK home to attend the funeral of Lily, the mother who abandoned her soon after her birth. Dead at 32 from a motorcycle crash, Lily is a shadowy figure her daughter is desperate to understand. The girl quickly visits the eponymous pink hotel, which was owned by Lily and her husband, Richard, a red-haired man in a nasty mood. Impulsively, she steals Lily’s suitcase — filled with clothes, letters, and photographs — much to Richard’s ire, and spends one long, hot, swampy summer following the clues in the letters and photographs, and tracking down the men in Lily’s life, all in a determined attempt to know her.
But the more she discovers, the murkier things become, and the more dangerous. Her father tells her that Lily was “manipulative and dangerous,” someone “we were lucky not to have in our lives,” and advises her to shut out Lily’s siren song. Richard is after her for the suitcase, and is determined to get it back, which pushes her into more and more machinations to stay hidden. And hide she does, in Lily’s identity, wearing Lily’s clothes, imagining her persona, and even getting involved with Lily’s men. She lies about herself, never revealing her lineage and adding years to her age so she can hook up with David, an alcoholic photographer who once knew Lily. But David harbors more than a few secrets of his own, including one revelation that will quake every bit of shaky ground she’s standing on.
This is a world where things are not what they seem, and that is especially true of the people. As the narrator tries on her mother’s life for size, she begins to understand how much the two of them have in common. Like her mother, she’s troubled, and she leaves when things get difficult. She’s also desperate to be engaged in life, courting danger because “pain seemed so much less capricious than pleasure, and so much less terrifying than feeling nothing.”
But if people are not who they seem, the depiction of Los Angeles is so dead on that it becomes a character in itself. Gritty, visceral, and dangerous, it’s full of bright lights, “martini bars and cityscapes, dusty roads and blue miniskirts.” And of course, there is the pink hotel, the very word suggesting innocence and light, but true to the flavor of the book, it is something quite different, with a history of drugs, motorcycles, and unsavory sorts who stayed for free and threw a lot of parties.
What makes Stothard’s descriptions so knockout is her eye for the unusual detail in the background. She hones in on two girls scrubbing the star of a TV actor with a toothbrush. She calls attention to the “perfectly black sky shot over by a firefly orgy of street and billboard lights.” The setting is so cinematic, you almost expect the credits to roll.
“There are a finite number of people who will ever see you,” David tells her at one point, as the novel speeds to a stunner of an ending, one that is both surprising, shocking, and even inevitable. The truth, though, is that while we may never receive the name of the narrator, thanks to Stothard’s prodigious gifts and richly woven novel, we come to know her — and what we know is unforgettable.