Book Review: The Paragon Hotel
The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye
I’m so lucky to have a best friend who is a librarian. Not only does Jen give great book recommendations, she also writes awesome reviews! After I read her review of The Paragon Hotel, I put it in my list of to-read books because it sounds right up my alley!
The new and exciting historial thriller by Lyndsay Faye, author of Edgar-nominated Jane Steele and Gods of Gotham, which follows Alice “Nobody” from Prohibition-era Harlem to Portland’s the Paragon Hotel.
The year is 1921, and “Nobody” Alice James is on a cross-country train, carrying a bullet wound and fleeing for her life following an illicit drug and liquor deal gone horribly wrong. Desperate to get as far away as possible from New York City and those who want her dead, she has her sights set on Oregon: a distant frontier that seems the end of the line.
She befriends Max, a black Pullman porter who reminds her achingly of Harlem, who leads Alice to the Paragon Hotel upon arrival in Portland. Her unlikely sanctuary turns out to be the only all-black hotel in the city, and its lodgers seem unduly terrified of a white woman on the premises. But as she meets the churlish Dr. Pendleton, the stately Mavereen, and the unforgettable club chanteuse Blossom Fontaine, she begins to understand the reason for their dread. The Ku Klux Klan has arrived in Portland in fearful numbers–burning crosses, inciting violence, electing officials, and brutalizing blacks. And only Alice, along with her new “family” of Paragon residents, are willing to search for a missing mulatto child who has mysteriously vanished into the Oregon woods.
Why was “Nobody” Alice James forced to escape Harlem? Why do the Paragon’s denizens live in fear–and what other sins are they hiding? Where did the orphaned child who went missing from the hotel, Davy Lee, come from in the first place? And, perhaps most important, why does Blossom DuBois seem to be at the very center of this tangled web?
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The Paragon Hotel by Lindsay Faye is one of my new favorite books. A bold opening statement for a book review, but I am nothing if not honest. While historical fiction is not typically a genre I venture into very often, I was pleasantly surprised and loved how well Faye told this story!
The Paragon Hotel opens on a train crossing America in 1921 with the character Alice James who has been shot fleeing the mafia in Harlem. While on the train, she meets a porter named Max, who helps Alice find a doctor when they arrive in Portland, Oregon and helps heal her. Alice stays at the hotel while she heals and she fall in love with the staff and other residence. By the end of the book, the reader begins to realize that it's a story about finding one’s own family and who you really are.
The Paragon Hotel is written so exquisitely and it feels like Faye has painted a vivid picture of 1920’s America. You can picture all the Art Deco in New York. The way she describes rain in Portland is poetic. Colloquialisms and era-specific phrases feel natural in the book and not forced, which only seems to solidify setting in the reader's mind. I can definitely say without hesitation that this book is very immersive and holds your attention. The inciting event happens when a little boy named Davy goes missing and the residents of the hotel try to find him, however, in 1920 Oregon, a black person could be expected to rely on the police as much as they could rely on the KKK, so this family of misfits are on their own.
The writing in this book can only be described as prose. Every word used seems to ooze off the page. People are described as “revoltingly talented” and have “stone carved chins.” Some favorite phrases are: “What kind of monster, what soulless breed of cur, would take alcohol away from everyone and suggest replacing it with milk” and “I had a tasseled dress once with fewer loose ends.”
I was particularly impressed with the historic accuracy written in this book, particularly in Oregon. Oregon often gets a reputation for being the bluest of blue liberal states, and while that maybe true in present day, the people who settled here did it with the intention of making it a whites only state. As early as 1844, the Oregon territory passed the first Black Exclusion Act, which mandated that black people attempting to settle in Oregon be publicly whipped. After Oregon became a state in 1859, the Oregon constitution banned slavery but also prevented black people from a legal residence in the state - making it illegal in Oregon to be black, not to mention own real estate, vote, or use the legal system at all in the case of a crime. According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, “By the 1920s, Oregon had a well established and well-earned reputation as a hostile and dangerous place for blacks. That reputation was solidified by the presence in the state of the largest Ku Klux Klan chapter west of the Mississippi River.” As railroad came to Oregon and brought with them The Great Migration, there needed to be a place for temporary black residence in the state. Often these people would stay places like the Paragon Hotel in the book, which is based on a real world hotel called the Golden West Hotel, located on 707 NW Everett Street. Places like this hotel were havens for the black community in Oregon at a time when the KKK was breathing down their necks, prohibition was at its peak, and their own black veterans were coming home from WWI to less than praise. Places like fictional Paragon Hotel and the real world Golden West Hotel were places where this community could be human again.
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Over time these laws have changed and racial relations have improved in the 20th century, but what this book gets right is the importance of a white woman staying at a black owned establishment at a time.
Today Oregon’s black population have ballooned to a whole 5.7% percent of the state and while Oregon has struggled with one of the highest reported hate crime rates in the nation, they are recently reporting in places like Eugene, Oregon that these hate crimes have decreased by 42% in 2018 and the Oregon attorney general is working with the state lawmakers to strengthen state laws for better protections.
Because the historical context can feel so alien to the reader, Faye use the characters to re-introduce the reader to world history from different perspective. The characters of this book bring such heart, you feel as if the historical subtext in which this story is something tangible and fills your imagination.
The main character Alice has grown up her whole life in or around the mafia. At first Alice’s fear of the mafia has her learning how to go unseen and learning how best to be a wallflower, earning her the nickname “Nobody.” Eventually her skills get her noticed by her pseudo-father figure, Mr. Salvatici, whose life mission is to destroy the mafia. Mr. Salvatici sees Alice’s ability to be “Nobody” as an asset and decides to train Alice to assume new identities and spy for him. When a life of defying the mafia eventually catches up with Alice and she gets shot, she flees to Oregon. New York and Harlem specifically, were relatively racially progressive for the time, so Faye uses Alice’s confusion at Oregon’s discriminatory laws as way to introduce the reader to this period in time.
Max, the train porter who save Alice, is another character who is so expertly written that the reader falls in love with him almost as much another character does. When he is introduced he is a mixed race black man who loves music. But as we get to know him we see he is patient, kind, funny, and generally just a good person. We also learn he served in WWI, which Faye also uses as a device to reintroduce the reader to American history. When Max talks about his time in WWI, you can tell he has a love-hate relationship with the experience. On one hand, he and his unit were fighting a war in Europe, but on the other hand there was much less discrimination in Europe and he was respected. Max seems to both hate the War and miss it.
Another interesting character is Blossom, who is cabaret girl and performs for living. She is staying at the hotel because of mysterious illness and helps take care of a little boy she found while on tour in her younger days. Alice takes a liking to Blossom as they both have a unique ability to put on different characters and personas like they were hats.
The characters are what really drives this whole story home for me. Faye mentions in her historical note, that a lot of the characters are based on real world people, and as a reader I can tell she took the utmost care in portraying their circumstances and lives. Not only are these characters written with care, but the fact that they are diverse instills the idea of finding your own family. One of the surprise twists was the reveal of a trans character at the end of the book. Upon this realization, I was shocked at how much more badass and compelling this made this character’s motivations throughout the book.
Beyond the characters, Faye uses flashbacks from Alice’s point of view to make to create a dual narrative. These dual narrative provide the purpose of showing Alice’s background and how she got to present narrative. While these can be jarring at first to the reader, it provide a vehicle for the reader to understand whether Alice is more flapper or femme fatale. It also provides parallels between black culture and Italian communities.
I recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, a good mystery, or generally just enjoys a good story. I’ve personally re-read this book already and have recommended to so many people.