Last year I was particularly proud of myself for having read 11 books, although I came just shy of reaching my ultimate goal of reading 12 books in 12 months. But for having relocated to a new country during the year, it’s not bad at all. This year has not been as rewarding, either in terms of quantity or quality. Quantity: I just read my second book of the year. Quality: I haven’t liked both books I’ve read this year. This has got to change.
I very much wanted to like “Hotel Honolulu” by Paul Theroux. I asked a friend whose advice on books I value for a recommendation- I specifically said, anything you can recommend is fine, since I’ll just download it on iBooks and read it on my upcoming trip. So he recommended this book which in its print edition is just over 4oo pages, but in its electronic form is over 1000 “pages”. When I saw that length on my blinking iPhone screen, I gasped. Nevertheless, I began reading my first e-book.
Early on, it became clear to me that the vignette style of the book was not going to hold my attention. The story is narrated by a nameless, successful writer who has fled to Hawaii to remake himself as the manager of the Hotel Honolulu. Reading on the back of the book cover that Paul Theroux splits his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii, I figured the narrator of the book may as well be named Thaul Peroux. But the narrator recedes into the background of the story, as we hear more and more about the people that stay at the hotel, the employees, and mostly, the owner of the hotel who hired our narrator to run the place. With no narrative thread to pull the whole thing together, just stories of people who come and go from the hotel, the reader isn’t given a chance to connect with a character beyond the cipher who narrates the story. For this reason, the book was not a page turner. Rather than turning the page because I was eager to follow the story, I simply pressed on for the sake of it.
But there was another reason I not only didn’t get into the story, but was often turned off by it. One common theme I found in “Hotel Honolulu” was men having their hopes and dreams crushed by the shrewish women in their life. Benno Nevermann and Vera Shihab, Royce Lionberg and Rain Conroy, and most significantly, as it takes up much of the second half of the novel, Buddy Hamstra and Pinky. In all of these pairings, you have otherwise happy, successful older men who become entangled with beautiful, wide-eyed young women. They were happy before and yet these women sucked the life out of them. The owner of the hotel, Buddy, goes to the Philippines to find a young, compliant bride, and spends the last years of his life in a contentious relationship with his foreign wife, Pinky. If there were only one relationship like this portrayed in the novel, it wouldn’t be noteworthy. But reading page after page of this dynamic left me feeling icky. The women were an unwelcome intrusion on the boys club of Honolulu. All of this left me reading the book just to finish it, and not enjoy it. Ironically, I always tell friends that life is too short for bad books. Unfortunately, I should have listened to my own advice in this case.