‘The Pink Hotel,” Anna Stothard’s cinematic novel, set during a breathless summer of stifling heat and raging wildfires in Los Angeles, is more noir than rosy. Its unnamed narrator, a plucky but haunted 17-year-old waif, tells how her life changed direction: Two weeks after being expelled from her London school, she filched a credit card from her stepmother’s purse to fly to California for the funeral of Lily, the mother who left her at 3.
Although the “albino-white” blonde with “oversized eyes . . . like a Gothic Virgin Mary from a museum postcard” arrives too late for Lily’s service, she shows up at the height of the wild, drunken vigil at the salmon-colored Venice Beach hotel where her mother was proprietor.
Slipping anonymously among “the carnival of mourners,” she runs a bath in her mother’s scum-ringed tub before excavating a red suitcase filled with papers and photographs from under the bed on which Lily’s stoned husband lies passed out. She stuffs the bag with the dead woman’s trendy clothes and makes off despite the man’s woozy protests.
This is a girl who follows her impulses, however reckless. So we’re hardly surprised when she becomes obsessed with learning more about the woman who gave birth to her at 14, abandoned her and her working-class father at 17, and flamed out at 32 in a motorcycle crash on the Laguna Highway.
Stothard’s resourceful teen proceeds to track down as many people from her mother’s erratic life as she can find. Her odyssey on L.A. public buses takes her to Edward Hopperesque bars and wealthy homes in the hills, where former clients praise Lily as a private nurse while acknowledging that they had to let her go because she stole things. The narrator, whose parents never married, locates Lily’s handsome first husband and lets him seduce her before confessing who she is. “She wasn’t the most reliable girl, your mother, but you know that,” he tells her, not as shaken by the daughter’s revelation as you might think.
Of course, the narrator’s search is ultimately for her own identity. She describes herself as easily invisible, “a personified shrug,” according to her father, not smiling or talking until she was 5, the master of the blank stare. She’s driven by nostalgia for things she has never known — being loved and appreciated the most prominent among them. Heightened by her obvious intelligence, her forlorn story is bound to make readers ache with sympathy and feel heartened by any glimmers of happiness.
The void at this girl’s core causes her to crave pain, leading to a predilection for rough sports and a few tentative experiments with self-
harming: “Pain seemed so much less capricious than pleasure, and so much less terrifying than feeling nothing,” she writes. She discusses her neuroses with remarkable aplomb: Neither depressive nor morbid, she is most afraid of losing control and feeling “that I had actually ceased to exist, that all I did was observe, and that I wasn’t connected to anything or anyone.”
Stothard is a five-sense writer, as rare as the five-tool ballplayer. Her sharp nose picks up the reek of nicotine, stale perfume and smog from the Los Angeles traffic, while her eye easily discerns the lighter pink of new scars and “flashes of impossibly white teeth” in a California crowd. She notes the stickiness of pay phones, bar tables and silk fabric in the heat, and revels in the meaning and sound of a word such as “quiddity,” pointing out that “a good word captures the quiddity of its meaning, the drippiness of dripping.”
Occasionally, Stothard strays too far into the maze of her narrator’s dreams and the plot of a fantasy novel snatched from Lily’s night table. But these are minor blips in this sensual bildungsroman that is part mystery, part love story.
“Even when I feel unhappy, tiny things still seem shatteringly beautiful, like the exact range of colours in a brick wall,” the narrator comments. It’s fitting, then, that her observations capture the derelict beauty of “that 6:00 a.m. city moment where the workaholics and alcoholics, early birds and insomniacs fleetingly collide” and the relief of touching a beloved’s hand, likened to “sipping water when you’re thirsty, or a first cigarette of the day.” These images, which shimmer in Stothard’s accomplished, lyrical prose, carry us willingly along on her narrator’s painful journey to self-realization.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org and The Washington Post, among other publications.
THE PINK HOTEL
By Anna Stothard
Picador. 280 pp. Paperback, $15