THE FIERY PANTHEON
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.
Natalie Marx, the dauntless young heroine and narrator, gets her first taste of genteel anti-Semitism in 1962, when her mother writes to inquire about accommodations at a small inn in Vermont and receives a letter from the owner, Ingrid Berry, informing her that "Our guests who feel most comfortable here ... are Gentiles."
Natalie is appalled - would they deny a room to Danny Kaye? Tony Curtis? Albert Einstein? Milton Berle? Jesus Christ? Anne Frank? Hadn't they heard about the concentration camps? She embarks on her own little personal campaign to penetrate and educate this bastion of prejudice.
Eventually, she gets an opportunity to stay at the inn when a Christian friend, Robin Fife, invites her to join her family's annual vacation. Natalie finds she likes the diffident Mr. Berry and his sons, who do not share the bigoted attitude of his wife and daughter.
As the years go by and Natalie begins her own career as a chef, circumstances keep her in contact with the inn and the family that runs it. Her old friend Robin becomes engaged to the innkeepers' older son, Nelson, and asks Natalie to come up for the wedding.
A series of dramatic and surprising events keep the story moving along suspensefully. Although much that happens is not funny or intended to be, Lipman's crisp style and keen wit make her novel a pleasure.
For Peter and Albertine Leroy, running an old-fashioned hostel on a little island off Long Island has been a way of life. In Leaving Small's Hotel, the latest in a series of novels by humorist Eric Kraft, Peter and his wife face the sad fact that their ramshackle inn is a losing proposition. Although Peter still enjoys living there, writing a series of children's books and working on his memoirs, Albertine has had to contend with the daily problems of keeping up an increasingly decrepit establishment. The time has come, it seems, to sell the place.
Peter decides to drum up business by offering guests nightly readings from his memoirs: 50 self-contained chapters, serving up drolly embellished episodes from his adolescence. The title he gives them is "Dead Air."
For Peter, the past - like a hotel - is a "place to go, another place, not this place." The writer's memory and imagination offer alternatives to the here-and-now, to all the cares and contingencies of daily life. Yet the ability of the storyteller - or the hotel-keeper - to create an alternative world cannot be completely detached from the need to attend to the tiresome details of the real world: leaky roofs, broken washing machines, and temperamental boilers.
Readers familiar with Kraft's novels may know that Peter Leroy is the author's fictional alter ego - unless, perhaps (if we are to believe what Peter Leroy tells us) it is actually the other way around. "Leaving Small's Hotel" is, among other things, a novel about a man trying to live his life as a writer, trying to keep his imagination alive and vigorous without sacrificing his wife or their marriage to the pursuit of his craft.
Kraft writes with a kind of cracker-barrel garrulity, the style of an inveterate talker or a late-night radio raconteur. His is a distinctly American sense of humor, built on playful exaggeration and wild flights of absurdity that are constantly brought up short by the ironic interventions of grim - or at least disconcerting - reality.
Like Mark Twain and James Thurber, to whom he has been (perhaps somewhat extravagantly) compared, Kraft never lets us forget that life is filled with reasons to be depressed, but that it just may be possible to laugh at some of them.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.