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The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

First published by Jonathan Cape, 1927; this edition Vintage Classics, 2016


The promise of a tight cast of characters, a glamorous setting - a hotel in an unnamed resort on the Italian Riviera in the 1920s - and a twentieth-century classic author who is new to me was irresistible.

Enjoyment factor

This was Elizabeth Bowen's first of many novels, written in 1927 and contemporary in its setting. The conceit is full of promise: a collection of wealthy, bored English people wintering on the Italian Riviera, only leaving the hotel to wander down to the tennis club, the village patisserie or for a picnic in the hills. Plenty of opportunity to dig down into the human psyche and explore the formation of new relationships, and there's some good stuff on inter-generational tensions in the wake of the war.

The problem for me was that not only did I not like any of the characters - acceptable because it was deliberate - but I never felt that I got to know any of them properly, which isn't acceptable as you're left not caring.

It left me thinking ...

How mind-numbing "wintering" for weeks on end in the Riviera would have been in practice, albeit enticing in theory; and how directionless was this entire class of people.

In terms of the writing, creating a cast of intentionally lackadaisical characters is potentially intriguing, but it only works if they go on some kind of journey, and in this case, they don't. They all end up exactly as they were when the novel opened. You could say that this was the point (see above) but it doesn't make for satisfactory reading.

I'll nevertheless try some more Bowen. The ingredients are promising, and she went on to write another twenty or so, going on to be awarded a CBE and honorary degrees from both Trinity College Dublin and Oxford.

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