Like Aisha’s, Em’s journey to find a lost loved one involves a host of colorful, madcap characters who may or may not exist. As we learn more about this family, the novel grows increasingly disorienting; though it seems purposeful, the more Em unravels, so does the reader’s attention span. If Corin’s intent was chaos, it worked. Like any book with an unreliable narrator, “The Swank Hotel” makes it difficult to discern what’s real from what’s imagined. The reader must sort out for herself what is actually happening before she can figure out what to take from it.
Corin writes her characters and their plights from direct experience. In the acknowledgments, she writes, “This book is inextricably bound to the life and mind of Emily Hochman,” her sister, a visual artist based in Berlin. But Hochman’s husband has claimed, in a Medium post, that details of his wife’s mental health struggles were used in this story without her consent. It can be argued that novelists often borrow from their own lives, or from the lives of people they know; but the ethics are never clear-cut, especially when the book causes others distress.
Ethical questions aside, there is much to admire in this narrative of adult sisterhood and mental instability, reminiscent of, if somewhat less memorable than, Miriam Toews’s exceptional “All My Puny Sorrows” and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s “My Sister the Serial Killer.” Slow-burning and tender, “The Swank Hotel” conveys the frustration and agony of watching someone you love battle her demons while also battling your own.
By Zoe Whittall
354 pp. Ballantine. $28.
Whittall’s fourth novel begins with Missy, a 21-year-old rock star who tries and fails to persuade a doctor to sterilize her so she can have as much sex as she wants on tour with her punk band, the Swearwolves. Detained at the Canadian border for cocaine possession (“in my defense, there isn’t actually any cocaine left in it, but it isn’t the world’s smallest bag of flour”), Missy reads in a magazine that Carola, the estranged mother who abandoned her at 13, is now involved with a yoga sex cult. (Who among us?) The news prompts Missy to question whether Carola really was that bad a mother after all.
Alternating between the viewpoints of Missy and Carola, “The Spectacular” traces their imperfect reunion while checking many of the boxes of feminist fiction: sex positivity, female bodily autonomy, abortion rallies, lesbianism. Though Whittall’s plot is meaty enough — about the mother-daughter bond that defines us, wrecks us, restores us — there isn’t anything really spectacular here. The book doesn’t add much to the already saturated subgenre of books about the complexities and qualified triumphs of modern womanhood.
For a novel about women defying social expectations, “The Spectacular” renders the women themselves too unsympathetic to root for. “Most depressing birthday ever?” Missy writes in her journal, drawing “a sad, wilting flower before I remember this is probably a hangover mood, not real feelings. In reality, my life is pretty great.” It’s hard to disagree: She’s doing whatever she wants, sleeping with whomever she wants, her only “mission to be likable, fun and perfectly relaxed, even though I am none of those things.” On Carola’s part, even when she tries at long last to be a parent to her child, she still can’t seem to put herself second. Most of us have felt like a failure, have felt we are never quite good enough. But the self-awareness Whittall depicts never leads the women anywhere beyond itself. (The most interesting character, Missy’s octogenarian grandmother, Ruth, gets disappointingly little page time.)
Despite the characters’ ambivalence about motherhood, Whittall has written a competent and highly readable testament to the strength of the maternal bond, even after years apart. “Her concern felt like a drug,” Missy thinks of Carola’s protective warnings, themselves intoxicating. “I was getting giddy from our closeness.”