In Anna Stothard’s candidly unflinching, evocative, and razor-sharp debut novel The Pink Hotel, the female protagonist is interested in creation stories and myths. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Noah’s flood, and the Aztec legend of “Coatlique” fascinate the astute and precocious 17-year-old British girl. And there’s a reason for her curiosity: her mother, Lily, left when she was only three. The girl desperately wants to know her own creation story, and her dad has never been forthcoming about the tale.
Stothard does not give her protagonist a name. Since Stothard tells the tale from the girl’s first-person perspective, perhaps Stothard did not feel the need to name the main character. It is a rather curious move. Naming and identity are so closely intertwined; because the narrator has no name, I never connect with her, I do not feel like I ever truly know her. For me, she is unknown, unknowable, and rather unlikeable. That is not to say that Stothard does not do a good job of fleshing out this individual—she does. But not giving the novel’s main personality a name bothered me immensely.
Yet I appreciated the main character’s mindset. Yearning for one’s mother is a universal concept that everyone can understand. The Pink Hotel begins when the girl gets news that her mother, who lived in Los Angeles, has been killed in a motorcycle accident. Stothard’s main character does not think of the consequences; she is 17, after all, and frantic over the prospect that she will never know her mother now that she is dead.
As she explains, “Presumably most people can conjure an image of their mother from childhood, but my memories are either from photographs or they’re physical. I can’t imagine what she used to look like, but remember fragments of her holding my hand too tight in a supermarket, the texture of her legs when I grabbed them….” So she decides to travel to Los Angeles, where her mother owned “The Pink Hotel” in Venice Beach with her second husband.
For the young girl, her journey is really a pilgrimage. When she arrives at the hotel for her mother’s wake, she sneaks into her bedroom and steals a red suitcase. She stuffs it full of her mother’s clothes, letters, and pictures. The girl flees the hotel after encountering her mother’s current husband. With a stolen credit card and little money, the main character sets out finding the people her mother knew in hopes of learning more about the woman who left all those years ago.
In an effort to get closer to her mother, the protagonist seems to take on the role of her mother. “I’m not Lily” she says, while wearing her mother’s “tight black dress and her red stilettos.” “Are you as good at lying as you are at storytelling” a character asks her. And she is quite adept at telling falsehoods, but not to the reader, only to others. You would think this quality would endear her to the reader; alas, it does not.
The Pink Hotel is peopled by a quirky cast of characters. Some of my absolute favorites are the Armenian women she meets. “How did you come to America?” the girl asks one of them. “My twin sister and I,” the woman replies, “weren’t interested in marrying men named Noah, you know?”
Stothard chooses the perfect setting for her characters and for the story. In fact, it is setting that drives The Pink Hotel and its characters. The author perfectly captures the essence of Southern California to create an atmospheric tale that would not have worked anywhere else. With lines like “If the Atlantic was a foaming, snapping Rottweiler, the Pacific was a sleepy gecko in the sunlight,” Stothard grabs you and puts you in the middle of the story.
Sense of place is so important in The Pink Hotel. In fact, the setting is what saved this story for me when I did not connect to the narrator. Stothard writes, “Los Angeles isn’t built for the rain, and everyone panics. The air gets saturated with ambulance sirens as oil rises up through the suddenly soaked tarmac highways, causing crashes.” “The heatwave had finally ignited, and LA had a halo of fire over it.”
Descriptions such as these make The Pink Hotel compelling and worth reading.
Stothard is a master at using lyrical prose. But I think The Pink Hotel would make a better movie than it does a book. Perhaps the actress who played the main character could make her more knowable and more likeable. A good actress could make moviegoers relate to the narrator and identify more with her, which was sadly missing here.