Saturday, November 7, 2020

Review: The Paragon Hotel

I dragged my feet a good long while before finally deciding to read The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye.  I was completely besotted, over the moon, borderline trash for her Timothy Wilde trilogy.  However I was the only reader on the planet who really did not like her first book post-trilogy, Jane Steele.  But seriously y'all, I loved the trilogy - so one bump in the road wasn't going to put me off.  However, the plot description for The Paragon Hotel almost did.  Land mines. So many, in fact, that I'm finally reading this book nearly two years after it's publication date.

It's 1921 and Alice "Nobody" James has just landed in Portland, Oregon with a bullet wound in her side and $50,000 in impeccable counterfeit bills.  She hustled her sweet behind out of Harlem (where she got said bullet wound and currency) thanks to a crooked cop - leaving behind a mobster guardian, a childhood friend turned sociopath, and an unrequited love who couldn't kick heroin.  It's on the train to Portland that she befriends a black Pullman porter who, seeing her in a bad way, spirits her to The Paragon Hotel - the only all-black hotel in Portland.  None of the residents are happy to have a white woman in their midst (for obvious reasons), but they patch her up all the same.

It's at the Paragon that Alice's attraction to Max (said Pullman porter) grows, she meets the borderline belligerent Dr. Pendleton, the all-seeing, all-knowing Mavereen, and the charming, can't-take-your-eyes-off-her, nightclub singer, Blossom Fontaine - just to name a few.  But then a young orphan who everyone takes care of at the hotel goes missing, the Ku Klux Klan heats up activities, and naturally there's a vile, crooked local cop stirring the pot.  In the middle of the stew is Nobody - a woman with a nose for secrets, who can blend in anywhere and go unnoticed, a woman who finds herself untangling a web that spun up around her.

Reading that synopsis you can probably guess the elephants in the room.  You've got a white main character surrounded by a large, mostly black, supporting cast.  Is this a white savior narrative?  I think that's up for the individual reader to determine.  I can see how some readers would think so.  For me?  I found there was nuance to it.  Is Alice a white savior?  Yes.  Does Alice, in turn, get saved by some of the black characters?  Yes.  Make of that what you will.  

This is also a story featuring LGBTQ characters and to really dive deeply into this aspect of the story pretty much gives ALL the spoilers.  I don't identify as LGBTQ so take this for what it's worth - but this aspect of the story largely worked for me in a setting and era where it was extremely difficult for people to "live out loud" when they're black and queer - never mind in a city like Portland.  Hell, it can be extremely difficult in the 21st century...

Is this Faye's story to tell?  As a white writer who identifies as queer?  Some readers won't think so - and as readers that is our right.  It largely worked for me.  Does that make me part of the problem?  Some readers will think so - and as readers that is their right.

Not to say I was madly in love with this however.  For one thing the mystery of the missing orphan boy didn't work for me at all. Largely because I didn't see the need for The Big Secret surrounding his disappearance.  It's kept a secret from people who love Davy Lee - and I couldn't abide that - especially when I saw absolutely no reason to keep them in the dark.  Very plausible explanations could have been given. Instead these people who love the boy will never know what happened to him and I cannot abide that.  Also, as much as I liked the audio edition, I'm glad I decided to not read this in print because the beginning is slow.  Really slow.  It takes a while to get anywhere. 

There are flashbacks employed in this story - to Alice's childhood days in Harlem, how she ended up as the ward of a mobster, and what transpired before she found herself on a cross-country train with a bullet wound. 

Did I love this as much as the Timothy Wilde books?  No.  Did I like this more than Jane Steele?  Lord above, yes.  Yes, it's problematic.  Yes, I can see why this problematic content would be a bridge too far for some readers.  I recognize this - but I still liked it.

Final Grade = B


Jen Twimom said...

Hmmm... I can see why you waited a bit on this one. There are a lot of potential landmines. I'm glad it worked for you, based on the description, I'd probably have shied away. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Wendy said...

Jen: I had an ARC for a long while but just....couldn't. I decided to give it a go on audio, and it did largely work for me. But I can totally understand why and how it would not work for other readers.