The Paragon Hotel, by Lyndsay Faye***-****

I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Putnam Penguin, and what’s more, I got it a long time ago. I have struggled with this book and still haven’t read all of it, but I’ve spent enough time on it that I feel equipped to write about it, or at least the part I’ve read.

The story is of a Caucasian woman traveling incognito, on the run from the law during Prohibition. She’s got a bullet wound and is in a bad way when the Negro Pullman porter takes pity on her and drags her home to the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon. But the hotel is for Negroes (the correct term during this time period,) and she isn’t entirely welcome; she looks as if she might draw trouble fast.

There are a hundred reasons I should have loved this book, and I’m still struggling to decide why I don’t. The former: I grew up in Portland and earned half of my history degree there. Portland history is a particular love of mine, and I’ve long been bemused at the way present day Boomers remain so smugly oblivious to the ugly racist history of the city. The Ku Klux Klan once had a chapter in the basement of a Methodist church in Sellwood, a neighborhood in Southeast Portland; I lived less than a mile from that church at one point. Furthermore, I have not found one inaccuracy in Faye’s setting. She’s brought it in like a champ.

Civil rights is another of my passions; I found nothing to object to in the way Faye handles this aspect of the story.

Yet for some reason, I cannot engage with this thing, and furthermore I cannot even stand to listen to all of it. There’s something about the author’s writerly voice that just grates on me. I have tried reading, and I have tried listening to the audio version, which often works for me when reading has failed. Nope. I can’t stand this book. In particular, the dialogue irritates the heck out of me.

If I were to give star ratings on my visceral reaction to this book, I’d probably give two stars. I can’t do that though, because it would be enormously unfair. I cannot pan a book without a specific reason, and so help me, I can’t find one. I think this is just an unusual individual reaction to a stylized, artistically rendered storyteller; and so this is what has held me back from reviewing. At first, I was convinced that with enough discipline, I could finish it; then when I realized that was never going to happen, I couldn’t figure out what rating to use, or what to say. I always have a good reason and a careful analysis, and this time both have eluded me. I am so confused!

If the things I have mentioned—civil rights, Portland, history during the Prohibition era—are in your wheelhouse, you may love this book. It seems just about everyone else does. If in doubt, read an excerpt, or get a copy free or cheap.

Go figure.

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