Thoughts: Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner

This is not the first Booker Prizewinner I’ve read, but I haven’t read that many so it still gets a mention. It is the first book I’ve read where the author had to apologise for its winning a prize though! I’ve never read Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and I’m sure it’s great, but come on, guys. Being angry at a book because some people chose it over a different book is not polite. And it’s… really unfortunate that the book that won is about female experiences and the book everyone wanted to win is a war book. It just looks unfortunate. And as a total outsider to this fight that happened before I was born, I just have to lay that out there. It would be dishonest not to.

Anyway, Hotel du Lac was really good.

It’s the epitome of a quiet read. Romantic romance novelist Edith Hope goes to a hotel, stays at the hotel, and finally leaves the hotel.

Or rather, disgraced romance novelist Edith Hope is sent to a hotel by scandalised friends to sit in a corner (of Switzerland at the end of the tourist season) and think about what she’s done. She does so, and decides she’s not that sorry. She goes home.

And what did she do?

That would be telling.

Brookner’s description skills are masterful. The hotel feels like a real place that I’ve been to, the people are vividly drawn and slyly made fun of, and Edith’s own writer’s instinct for guessing backstories (100% wrong every time) is wonderful. It captures the exact feeling of aimless solitude in a strange place, trying on another life for a while, playing with self-reinvention that never really sticks. But it never sinks into tedium – Edith is always thinking, always observing. There are always people to watch and eavesdrop on and talk to.

And yes, the people are all awful but thankfully (because I can be squeamish) they’re not the kind of awful that makes you want to give up on life and live in a cave. They’re the sort of awful that fascinates us (us being the totally definitely impartial observers, safe and smug in the knowledge that we have no such terrible flaws to be ferreted out) and I spent about half the book hoping Edith would stay and eavesdrop a while longer, ask a few more questions. From Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer in their unhealthy codependent relationship, to the mysterious old countess, to the rich troubled lady with the appalling little dog.

There are some men as well, but the men are… honestly less interesting. Ha. What’s more interesting is the way they interact with Edith and the way they act with her. Though I will say that Mr Neville was so weird and rude that I honestly wondered if he was the devil for a while and this was going to turn out to be a very different kind of book.

I like these quietly stubborn heroines who refuse to be bludgeoned into a conformity they don’t want, even if they make a mess of things, even if they make things hard and aren’t “nice” and quite ruin dinner parties. All Edith wants is her little house and her garden and the quiet after sunset, and if that’s too much for the world to allow her, then, well, she’ll have to disappoint the world, won’t she?

Anyway, there’s not much to describe without giving the whole thing away, and there’s plenty to think about. Recommending this one in the knowledge that it isn’t for everyone.

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