Getting Away From It All
Three new comic novels to check out about guests and proprietors who check in.
THE FIERY PANTHEONSkip to next paragraph
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By Nancy Lemann
255 pp., $22
THE INN AT LAKE DEVINE
By Elinor Lipman
253 pp., $23.95
LEAVING SMALL'S HOTEL
By Eric Kraft
346 pp., $23
Once upon a time, perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, a family of four could spend a week's vacation at a nice hotel for what a single person now pays for an overnight stay. Hotels, which once offered an affordable escape for the average family, have pretty much become the preserve of the privileged few who travel on expense accounts.
Exactly how this came about is a subject not examined by any of the three writers who have chosen hotels as the setting for their novels. What interests them, instead, is the time-honored concept of the hotel as a beacon of hospitality, a home-away-from-home, a place to get away from one's usual routine and surroundings.
In Nancy Lemann's The Fiery Pantheon, hotels are intermediary places, temporary oases for people whose lives are unsettled. The heroine, Grace Stewart, and her wealthy Southern family - father, mother, assorted siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews, and cousins - migrate from one expensive watering-hole to the next.
A beautiful but skittish woman in her late 20s, Grace is a study in contradictions: she dresses in the dowdiest, most shapeless clothes to hide her good looks, yet she can't stop flirting. "It is true that she would have batted her eyelashes at almost anything in shoe leather," the narrator notes. "But then, it wouldn't even have to be in shoe leather. She would bat her eyelashes at a friend, a relative, a building. She would have batted her eyelashes at a dog. This is the pathos of the incorrigible flirt."
Grace is divided between her Southern past and her current life in New York. She is engaged to a young Southerner whom she sees as the embodiment of the traditional Southern values she worships: honor, duty, decorum. As Lemann slyly puts it, "She had a nostalgia for a life she had never led."
Unfortunately, Grace's fianc has an irksome, if commendable, habit of spending most of his time visiting elderly, ailing relatives, instead of showering his attentions on Grace. This leaves Grace susceptible to the overtures of Walter, a handsome, deeply unsettled young securities analyst who happens to be staying at the venerable old Virginia hotel where Grace and her extended family are ensconced.
Walter is dismayed to discover that Grace maintains in her imagination a "fiery pantheon" of male heroes who embody her somewhat deluded ideal of honor, and that he - unlike her dilatory fianc - is not among them.
The story of Grace's choice between her fianc and her new suitor unfolds in a series of colorful locales from Virginia to Istanbul, as the characters move from one posh hostelry to another.
The atmosphere and style of this novel could well be described as inebriated. Lemann's prose has a sort of glib, cocktail party chattiness that gradually slips into the fuzzy repetitiousness commonly associated with alcoholic bores. The drolleries that were amusing the first or second time we read them begin to pall the fifth or 25th time around. Still, her novel has a kind of insouciant, offbeat charm that is quite distinctive.
If Lemann focuses on people who stay at hotels, Elinor Lipman's novel The Inn at Lake Devine looks at the institution from both sides of the check-in counter. Set in the 1960s and 1970s, this social comedy is also a shrewdly perceptive portrait of some aspects of Jewish-Gentile relations in midcentury America.