The cover of the book is probably an attempt to convey the kitschy complex glamour of Los Angeles, but comes off chicklit; the positive cover copy, from Helen Dunmore and Fay Weldon, actually refer to Anna Stothard’s first novel, Isabel and Rocco, published nearly a decade ago. The Pink Hotel had not received the attention it deserved before it made the 2012 Orange Prize longlist last month, yet Stothard’s writing is as sensual and fresh as ever and has even improved in its depth of characterisation. Where Isabel and Rocco was a compelling novel primarily about adolescence and only secondarily about a family breakdown, The Pink Hotel is equally strong as a sustained, general meditation on love, desire and identity, and as a sort of emotional detective novel, a tale of specific relationships.
Stothard’s protagonist and narrator is an intelligent but directionless seventeen-year-old Londoner whose father runs a café with her stepmother. Her birth mother, Lily, ran away when she was three – the only memento she has of her is a strip of photo-booth photos. Fourteen years after Lily’s abrupt and unexplained exit from her life, the narrator finds out that Lily has recently been killed in a road accident. She decides on the spot to travel out to America, where her mother lived and died.
The book begins at Lily’s wake, held in the eponymous hotel in Los Angeles. In the midst of riotous technicolour partying, the narrator steals up to Lily’s old bedroom and, whilst taking an illicit bath, witnesses a tall weeping man sneaking a photograph of her mother into his pocket. Another man, ginger and very drunk (who turns out to be Lily’s widower), throws the weeping man out before passing out on the bed. Taking advantage of the lull, and lost in ‘nostalgia for things [I’ve] never known’, she steals a suitcase full of billets-doux and an armful of Lily’s clothes before fleeing the scene, although not before attracting the confused attention of the widower. She stalls in L.A. long enough to miss her plane back to England, which launches her on a dreamy, forceful journey of emotional discovery as she tries to discover which of Lily’s many lovers wrote the letters in the suitcase, which someone is very keen to retrieve.
Stothard’s great talent lies in writing the body, which becomes practically a character in its own right. The protagonist describes her fascination with pain:
“My body has always felt divorced from my mind… It’s difficult to explain the adrenalin I got from someone’s trainer mashed into my shoulder or grazing my knee and smelling blood on the shorn grass. I liked the relief of the cold air forced sharply into my lungs and the respite of traceable pain on my skin rather than the fleeting and invisible map of pleasure that seems to happen with love and affection. Girls are meant to be subtler in their choice of violence, but it took me a long time to discover sex and charm.”
Each important episode in the book comes with visceral bodily involvement, less reacting to the event than physically typifying the mood. For example, the protagonist’s alleged involvement with the death of a younger girl at her school is linked to the helplessness and self-destruction of the autoasphyxiation both girls recreationally practiced, described with graphic intensity. When she has sex without real emotional involvement, her body simultaneously absences itself, ‘as if I was watching the scene from elsewhere.’ The first time she sleeps with someone who does matter, Stothard makes a point of eradicating her character’s memories of the moments leading up to the act, and the sex itself, but gives her the memory of doing handstands, with blood rushing to the head, spine tingling and feet arched forward – a moment of tense, gravity-defying triumph.
The quality and realism of the writing is breathtakingly convincing and is part of the surprisingly immersive experience of reading it. Emma Hagestadt at The Independent recommended this ‘quest’ as one which would appeal to ‘older teens’, but I would recommend it to anyone old enough to have been in love even to the point of obsession, or who knows how it feels to have your skin ‘lift and tingle’ a moment before impact. There’s no age limit on this self-contained and extraordinary book.