This is how the world will end: not with a bang but with an eruption of Beverly Hills. Or that’s what to remember about the provocative and captivating The pink hotelLiska Jacobs’ third novel.
The pink hotel is by turns a love story, a social satire, an elegy for the planet, a farewell to the glamor of old Hollywood and, above all, a morality tale. Written mostly in the third person, it introduces us to the top 1% of the top 1% seen through the wide-eyed naivete of newlyweds Kit and Keith Collins, so just married that “grains of rice are stuck in the dark corners of his purse.
Jacobs drags his ironic shingle at the start. The Collins are from the literal boonies – a town in Mendocino County called Boonville, where Keith is the manager and Kit an aspiring waiter and sommelier at a modest but “authentic” restaurant recently awarded a Michelin star. They spend their honeymoon cocooned in “luxury with a capital L” at the Pink Hotel, a no-nonsense facsimile of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The kicker? The couple aren’t just in town to celebrate their nuptials; they were also attracted to a job opportunity for Keith. Talk about competing agendas.
The Beverly Hills Hotel, of course, has a historic place in Hollywood. The Beatles once slipped into the pool after midnight! Cary Grant was a regular at the bar! Hepburns Audrey and Katharine crashed there, as we are repeatedly reminded in what begins to look like a magical incantation, a prophylaxis, perhaps, against the vagaries of the 21st century, when climate change, wage inequality and the gaping chasm between rich and poor fuel civil unrest.
Jacobs gets the details right, describing gardens so lush they “create their own microclimate.” With its relatively small size and clubby insularity, the hotel is something of a Downton Abbey for Beverly Hills, allowing top-down drama to unfold in cushy cloistered claustrophobia.
It is the habitat where “the elegant animals” live, the playground of the rich and the infamous. Jacobs depicts in delightful detail the “curving walls that unfurl…in the great hall like a petal in the breeze.” It’s as if “the hotel is nursing them”. As a child, Keith dreamed of Egyptian cotton while being lined with polyester; he is so in love that he has to squeeze his hands so as not to tremble. Kudos to Jacobs for attributing a craving for high thread count sheets to the Mr. and not the Mrs. That’s only fitting, since Kit is mostly in on the game.
Meanwhile, wildfires erupted across Southern California, and soon “entire mountainsides” were “smoldering like coal in a furnace.” The hotel becomes a “pressure cooker” into which Keith and Kit are thrown with the pampered and their pampers. These include the general manager of the hotel, Mr. Beaumont; his wife, Ilka, who can barely conceal her desire for Keith; and a mid-level hostess named Courtney, who has reinvented herself as Coco and is favored by the guests she has insinuated herself to. Courtney also put her cousin Sean, a handsome construction worker, on duty. As someone who doesn’t live on the grounds, he offers Kit a perspective of the outside world and a distraction from Keith’s obsession with the hotel.
If Jacobs’ descriptions of the personal are insightfully nuanced, his portrayal of the wealthy is anthropological. Marguerite, “just nineteen”, is first spotted by the Collins in puffy Diane von Furstenberg silk, with the kind of “bright skin of youth but also full-time dermatologists and beauticians”. As soon as she sees Kit, she “runs her fingers through her hair,” plotting how she’s going to Eliza Doolittle her “new toy” in “Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Balmain.” Its identical twin cousins, First and Second, are fond of “limited-edition Piaget watches…luxury streetwear” and statements such as “billionaires are people too.” Like Marguerite, they have millions of social media followers.
Then there’s Mimi Calvert and her capuchin monkey, Norma Jean. Calvert, a former actor who married wealthy people, spent 22 years at the hotel and never leaves the property; she eats dry martinis, bone broth and raw vegetables. Angelenos will understand her aversion to the outdoors from a single detail: that she would be happy to “never smell Ralphs fried chicken again.” “Amen, my sister! I mumbled, remembering the oily smell clinging to your clothes and your hair.
Los Angeles is a character too, and despite the threat of mudslides, droughts and earthquakes, the city maintains its reinvented reputation as a destination where insta riches are seemingly always within reach. We have old money and new money and what you might call fictitious money. Everyone knows someone like my friend Craig, who was offered a role in Friends but turned it down, instead choosing better billing in a never-aired pilot where he played a chimpanzee’s sidekick.
The ability to quicken the pulse surging just below the surface is no doubt why Keith anticipates “this trip could change everything.” Yet, soon enough, the temperature goes from simmering to boiling as wildfires and social upheaval draw closer, heightening tensions inside the fortress as libidinous escapades and palace intrigues ensue. What happens next won’t exactly come as a surprise, but Jacobs provides tense suspense as we learn who eats and who gets eaten. Can she outdo herself designing orgiastic debauchery rivaling The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie and eat the rich? Yes, she can.
Anything goes for a teardown, and Jacobs spares no one, not even the reader. Her relentless name-checking of the designers—I suspect she blames our complicity in celebrating consumerism—sent me to the RealReal trolling. Is anyone immune to the lure of ‘Temellini cashmere’, something I never knew I wanted – no, needed – until I read The pink hotel? It’s interesting that Jacobs doesn’t challenge the patriarchal fiefdoms of old Hollywood, but it makes sense because she contrasts the greats who once graced the hotel grounds, honing their craft, with the celebrities now in residence, who don’t produce nothing of importance, instead dedicating their time to minimizing the pores on their face.
The reader you are rooting for in this closed piece of a novel will likely have to do with your own attitudes and viewpoints. Jacobs wants us to invest in Courtney, Kit and Keith, but me? I am recently divorced and I have a cold heart. I supported the monkey.•
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