by Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
Façades are a key factor in Laura van den Berg’s second novel, The Third Hotel. Clare is an American elevator salesperson that travels to Havana to attend a film festival, and the author lets us know from the start that there is a discrepancy between how Clare appears to others and the complex psychological labyrinth that lies within her. This dichotomy is the fulcrum by which the story twists and turns from the moment that Clare sees her recently deceased husband standing, seemingly alive-and-well, before her on foreign soil.
Her trip was initially planned by her husband Richard, the late horror film scholar. But thirty-five days after he was killed by a hit-and-run driver, she has elected to make the journey alone, in order to meet the director of the first horror film shot in Cuba. Once she spots Richard, Clare stalks him, viewing his unusual life in Havana from distances, through windows, and from behind the slats of a closet door.
She is a voyeur to a degree that only a tourist can achieve. And she should know something about tourists; she grew up in a Florida inn run by her parents. It is perhaps because of this biographical detail, that we experience this character more deeply when she is a hotel guest. As she pursues Richard, the story recalls the mundanity of their marriage as it unfolded at home. This contrasts with the more revealing depiction of her character in the present and during her life on the road, both of which take place while she stays in temporary lodging. In flashbacks of her work travels, we see her eating quesadillas in empty bathtubs and lying naked and alone on the beds of rented rooms, experiencing the existential ennui that seems to be a more substantial element of her character than her domestic experiences. But despite that, she persists in her pursuit of Richard and the veneer of normality, determined to reconcile the two opposing elements of her life.
As Clare explores Cuba, which is appropriately filled with traditional façades covering its own transformation into modernity, van den Berg’s prose reads at once like vivid travel writing, combined with a nuanced mystery where clues seem to bring us further away from its solution. The author incorporates subtle surrealism as she ushers Clare between her surroundings and her psyche. Clare dubiously presents herself to an interesting array of supporting characters, misleading them with tactics that range from slight lies to, at one point, impersonating another woman. In an attempt to find footing in the material world, she slips further away from it. The transitions between her inner and outer realms imbue the text with an eerie quality.
The essence of her existential dilemma is represented by one of the many film theories that Richard had explained to her during their marriage. In horror films, he states, there is a character called the Final Girl. She is the one whom the killer underestimates, and after being forced into a confrontation with that deadly antagonist, she is the lone survivor. Clare embodies the struggle of the Final girl, both in losing Richard, and in the pending death of her sickly father. She spends the novel dealing with survivor’s guilt, searching for proof that simultaneous realities exist in hope that Richard is, in some way, still alive, and that mortality is ultimately unsuccessful in its role as the perennial horror villain. There is loneliness in survival, and van den Berg expertly delivers the full extent of that sentiment.
The structure of the novel is a daring one. The narrative makes bold choices at the outset, leaving no ambiguity to whether or not Richard is really dead. Clare has, indeed, attended his funeral. This leaves fewer options in terms of the story’s mystery, and ensures that its resolution is either metaphysical or psychological. And halfway through the novel, it becomes suspect as to whether or not the various setups will payoff.
It is at the midway point that the pacing begins to accelerate to abrupt breaks, delaying cadences, and the result holds the reader’s attention when the suspense slacks. It becomes clear that van den Berg is petitioning us to meet her at least halfway in deciphering the nature of Clare’s descent toward the climactic scene beneath the full moon. This will turn off readers looking to kick back and get lost in a plot-driven thriller, but will undoubtedly thrill those seeking a rich tapestry of nuance in order to infer their own conclusions about the story, as well consider possible answers to universal questions about the human experience.
Ultimately, The Third Hotel does not pay off every intriguing setup, but it does deliver something more valuable. It is an evocative and sometimes uncanny look at loneliness as it pertains to survival and the inability to tether oneself to inherent forms of meaning. Clare is a Final Girl paying an emotional price after being forced into a confrontation with mortality. And while the novel leaves its audience with more questions than answers, those questions are certain to remain with the reader long after its final page. – John Kazanjian