In The Paragon Hotel, Lyndsay Faye brings us a character nicknamed Nobody. She’s actually Alice James, but is skilled at disappearing into the corner of a room or a street. She uses some disguise, but mostly changes voices and attitudes to blend in. It’s a skill she learned growing up in an early 1900s whorehouse.
Faye flips the chapters back and forth between Then and Now. Now is 1920s Portland, Oregon. Then was early teens New York City and boroughs. In both cases Alice / Nobody barely manages to keep out of the fire. In fact, the entire reason she’s in Portland is because the flames got too high and hot in NYC.
Nobody is a plucky young woman, born into adversity and managing to survive by the skin of her teeth. But I also must say, Nobody is little bit boring. I struggled with this book, until *wham-bam* Faye hit me with three big plot twists in three chapters. Then all of a sudden the freight train started to fly downhill and threaten to hop off the tracks. However, I could have used about 50 pages less exposition to those twists.
Faye is an ambitious writer. And in The Paragon Hotel she takes on a wide variety of topics that are as timely today as they were in Nobody’s day.
In the Oregon story, Nobody, who is white, lives in a hotel for black people. Considering it was illegal to be black and living in Oregon at the time, Faye hits both race relations and racism smack on their white hooded heads. Yes, there’s KKK in the story. And some white savior complex …
In the New York story, Nobody is a player (or maybe a pawn) in one man’s long game against the Mafia. Her lifelong friend Nicolo is involved as well, but his part is unclear until Faye pulls back the veil. It’s a risky game for everyone involved.
In both stories, Faye also takes on some aspects of women’s rights and the question of sexuality. Plenty of women in the story struggle with whether they have a right to agency, from Nobody’s mother to various characters in Portland. While this isn’t the center of the story, it’s easy to see how important the topic is to the author.
As I mentioned, The Paragon Hotel didn’t move quickly enough for me. I recall feeling the same way with Dust and Shadow, although I liked that book more overall. It’s not especially long, but took me much longer than normal to finish. I just kept picking other books up instead. And yet, those twists at the end were its savior. Without them, I would be panning the book. With them, I’m recommending it with an eye to patience.
I received a digital ARC from NetGalley and publisher Penguin Group / Putnam / G.P. Putnam’s Sons in exchange for this honest review. Many thanks to them as well as the author.