Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Book Review: A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies by Ellen Cooney

Publisher: Pantheon
Genre: Lit. and Fiction


Excerpt from the book

Discussion questions

Radio interview with the author


It's the middle of February, the year 1900, a young auburn-haired woman is riding fast towards Boston on a delivery sleigh belonging to 'Gerson's Fine Pastries and Biscuits', with fifty dollars in cash in her purse. She also has a box of cakes, tarts and sugar rolls, a pair of borrowed wool mittens, and a small valise of clothing and toiletries lent to her by Mabel Gerson, the propreitress of the bakery.

The woman in question is Charlotte Heath, the protagonist of our novel and she is running away after seeing her fabulously rich and aristocratic husband almost kissing another woman in the middle of the street. They (the husband and this woman) weren't expecting to see Charlotte, after all, she was supposed to be in the sick room of the Heath Mansion recovering from a disease thought to be polio, but because of the stigma attached to it, the family preferred to refer to it as a disease of the brain. Charlotte is so betrayed by what she sees that in an impetuous moment she decides to run away to Boston to a hotel exclusively for ladies where her previous and much-loved housekeeper, Mrs. Petty, now works.

What Charlotte doesn't know however is that this exclusive hotel for ladies is a brothel, or a brothel-in-reverse actually, where every room comes with the services of a handsome young man in the employment of the hotel! Now, when you learn of a premise as enticing as this one, you want to grab the book off the shelf and take it to your nearest reading hole and devour it, after all, who among us hasn't envisaged having a harem of men, or atleast one nice young man, to meet our every need? Sadly, however, this book doesn't quite match most of our fantasies. It's a nice story told in a charming old-fashioned way but it does not titillate mostly because it is written from a Victorian standpoint. Having said that however, there is a lot of intrigue and a sexual undercurrent running through the book making it exciting in its own way, though nowhere near as exciting as it should have been!

The fact that the book is set in February in the middle of a Boston winter perhaps is meant to serve as a metaphor for Charlotte Heath's life - when she arrives at the hotel she is as frozen as the city, unable to think for herself, unable to deal with her emotions, but after she spends time there and away from her domineering husband and his family she seems to be empowered and her reserve and fear melt like the snow in spring.

The author Ellen Cooney populates this book with a whole host of colourful characters: a lady doctor who works 24/7 seemingly to escape from a marriage gone cold, an artist with polio who is confined to a wheelchair, and tends to nod off mid-sentence, a reclusive lady opium addict and wife of the owner of the hotel, and even a cameo appearance by Fannie Farmer, who like our protagonist, had polio as a child but went out to write a very successful cookbook. Unfortunately the author doesn't really flesh out these characters well and I didn't connect with any of them on an emotional level.

Strictly speaking, this isn't a love story although I would describe it as a romantic comedy. Its main theme seems to be how our heroine Charlotte overcomes her rather prim and prudent Victorian upbringing by embracing her sexuality thus stepping out of the shadows and into the light. Makes me want to end with the very popular Virgina Slims slogan, "You've come a long way, Baby"!