Book Review: The Paragon Hotel

Book Review: The Paragon Hotel

I really hate doing this, but it’s so bad. Mine is not a universal opinion, not even universal in my book club (though it is also not unique). But while I was interested in what was happening and kept turning the pages, the writing style was just way too much. And the plot was all over the place, too. There were way too many themes or issues, which piled on all the way up to the end. The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye is not the only bad book I’ve read lately. I’m on a roll. But I will not be recommending it (or the others).

In the swinging 20s, Nobody is an Italian-American, young woman riding a train from the East Coast (Harlem) to the West (Portland). She’s been shot, but nobody’s supposed to notice that, until the Black porter does, and finds her help in segregated Portland’s all-Black hotel. She also comes with a suitcase full of cash and a complicated, secret backstory involving the Mafia. But The Paragon Hotel’s long-term inhabitants have complicated, secret backstories of their own, and when a Black child goes missing just as the KKK comes to town, some of those stories will be unearthed while violence and racism circle ever closer to all of them.

So, let’s start with something simple: the book is in present tense (the majority of it, anyway), first person POV. I prefer past and third, but I can accept other things if I feel like there is a reason and enough going on in the book to make the shift worth it. (Also, YA tends to be in first person. And present tense is a little trendy.) While Faye uses present tense to distinguish the main story from her backstory (told in frequent, chapter-long flashbacks), I was put off by it. And I also would have loved 3rd person so that we could get out of Nobody’s voice sometimes, which was overbearing in its 20s/cutesy/jargony presentation.

And that was probably my biggest problem with this book: the voice. Nobody (the character) is over the top. She’s funny and uses time-appropriate phrases and all, but it’s spread on much too thickly. Here. I’ll give you an example of when the humor and voice go right: “He looked like a fat woodpecker—if woodpeckers felt dreadfully awkward around Negroes, which so far as I know is an exclusively human characteristic” (p181). It’s goofy and unique, but at least it’s funny and comprehensible. There were many more times when I had to re-read sentences over and over to even figure out what Faye was saying. Why? Those sentences were twisted into acrobatic contortions, littered with jargon, riddled with metaphors (and mixed metaphors), and trying so hard to be funny and witty and unique. The metaphors thing bears repeating; Paragon Hotel is like a metaphor farm. Or where metaphors go to die. Here are a few examples of when the writing style failed: “The trio walked to the corner. Waited for me with slitted prison-gate eyes” (p183. What the heck are prison gate eyes?). Also, “We can’t see the moon sleeping high above the charcoal-sketched Portland streets” (p191. It’s like telling us not to think of a pink elephant). “He’s positively nailing the dandy act, violet cravat and a monocle, no less, because why pay the dairyman when you can buy the whole cow” (p195, just too much. Too much). While these little snippets might seem okay, string together a book of this writing and, believe it, it becomes overwhelming quickly.

Style aside, I didn’t mind that the tone of the book was strangely playful, like Life Is Beautiful mixed with The Godfather II. But then sometimes this approach went south and I found myself disturbed by the silliness at very serious moments, like, “It’s getting to be all I can do not to stare at her with tragedy beaming from the old peepers” (p253). And I did mind that Faye then shoehorned in so many issues. Like Life Is Beautiful was about the Holocaust, The Godfather II about the mafia. Paragon Hotel is about racism, organized crime, gender issues, sexuality issues, community violence, Prohibition, nightclubs, disease, mental illness, and family dynamics. With more than one thread related to each of these. Some of these stories appear to come out of nowhere late in the book. At least one of them drops off, basically unresolved. Because it’s too much and therefore stretched believability, especially given the time and place. (Not to mention that the book is framed as a “love letter” to someone. We forget we’re supposed to be figuring that out, too.) My book club had ideas about which plot lines and themes should have been cut, which included a counterfeit subplot. Some people thought that this could have been two books (Harlem and Portland), then it would have simplified matters enough.

The writing style also felt to me like I was reading a play. There was plenty to look at, but not a tremendous amount of depth, despite all that was revealed. Or like the deep stuff was cheesy, hokey. Some of the readers at book club tried to say it was confusing writing because it was confusing times, but we basically laughed that off. No, it was just confusing writing, and we don’t need to look for excuses. Some readers called it “too poetic,” but that’s not it, either, though I understand what they mean: like poetry, the meaning to the sentences was buried and needed to be extracted. But this is supposed to be fast reading. And it lacks many of the qualities of poetic writing.  

Some have accused this book of having a white savior narrative. Is there nuance? Is there a difference between that paradigm and the one in the book where an injured, ex-Mafia lady lands in the middle of a mess and often bungles it up while trying to fix it? I mean, she’s definitely trying to fix the problems the Black community and its members are having in Portland. Is she working with them? Is she just an ally? Using her position in society to do things they couldn’t do? It’s a trope worth discussing regarding this book.

A few notes: there are some real characters, places, and events in this book, though mostly it’s made up. The Portland segregation laws are real, obviously. The hotel is based on a real hotel (The Arcadia). There is some real New York Mafia stuff going on (like the Corleones). Also, living in a hotel was much more normal at the time this book takes place. (There were some readers confused about this at group.) Just FYI.

And I was not the only one really perturbed by the misuse of the word “admired” on like every other page at the end of the book. What on earth happened here? I counted eight times.

Let’s end on this: the back of the book says that The Paragon Hotel is “A remarkable, significant novel” and a “wickedly poetic tour de force.” It credits it with “stunning prose” and says it is “exquisitely plotted.” Absolutely not. We laughed at these assertions at book club. But I will give it this: “Full of wry wit, dark humor, and magnificent period details.” Or at least a lot of period details because there was a lack of setting. I kept reading because I was committed to it and, really, you want to know what happens. Otherwise, it felt like a disappointment, a book I wanted so much to like but just couldn’t respect.

Lyndsay Faye definitely has some great ideas for books. The Paragon Hotel is actually among her lowest-rated, though they are all around the same space (3.8) except for the Timothy Wilde series (which are consistently rated over 4 stars). Here are her books:

  • The Gods of Gotham (Timothy Wilde #1)
  • Seven for a Secret (Timothy Wilde #2)
  • The Fatal Flame (Timothy Wilde #3)
  • Dust and Shadow (Dr. Watson recounts Jack the Ripper story)
  • The Whole Art of Detection (Sherlock Holmes stories collection)
  • Observations by Gaslight (Sherlock Holmes stories collection)
  • Jane Steele (murder mystery Jane Eyre)
  • The Gospel of Sheba (part of the Bibliomysteries series)
  • The King of Infinite Space (LGBTQ+ Hamlet in modern New York)

Her website can be found HERE.

“That horse you’re beating needs burying” (p259).

“Because life is a circus. When you risk nothing or little, your audience is entitled to think little or nothing of your efforts…” (p262).

“Her apricot waves are piled atop her head, but it looks like she employed two minutes and a fork on the project” (p288).

“How does a body dare to dirty bedsheets when you know exactly who’ll be washing them?” (p336).

“What’s going on is that Blossom is trying to fight trouble with trouble, which I’m dreadfully afraid only leads to more trouble” (p340).

“Honey, if this is lucky, Christ save me from further serendipity” (p386).

“And I left to ponder how much you would have to love someone to give them up entirely” (p387).

“Blossom is probably correct—Jenny can’t change the world. But I wonder what a thousand Jennies, sitting at a thousand typewriters and punching millions upon millions of letters into straight columns, all those separate words in newspapers across the nation marching as one great force, might accomplish if given the means and the time” (p398).

“Let’s mourn only for our losses. And never for the things we haven’t lost quite yet. We already have an entire language that would be dead if you were” (p414).