In the Lobby of the Dream Hotel
by Genevieve Plunkett
Catapult Books, 2023
Reviewed by Geri Lipschultz
In the Lobby of the Dream Hotel, by Genevieve Plunkett, is not a novel one rushes through for plot, to quickly find out “what happens”; it asks the reader, instead, to take in the words slowly in order to inhabit Portia Elby’s inner world so full of analogies and metaphors and similes. The book opens with the protagonist in mother mode, sporting a hickey bestowed upon her by a lover; she calls this a “waitress mark” when her seven-year-old son asks. It then quickly jumps to a childhood memory, then slips back into a present tense that exists before the opening. Portia is nothing if not overly sensitized to the world that surrounds her: “Her senses were so ignited that she could not help but feel as if every particle of the earth had been designed specifically for her.”
We are also asked to read this book in a place outside of time; it is not chronologically arranged but in a seemingly haphazard way, to honor, perhaps, the mind of the protagonist, along with the strategy of gaps and delays.
The main actions—Portia’s bipolar diagnosis—and her subsequent hospitalizations that are to some extent initiated by her father and then later, more subtly and terrifyingly, by her husband—find her victimized: we read about her not because of what she does but because of how she thinks—her comparisons, her observations, her hopes and dreams expressed, the delicate and unusual ways she articulates herself through the narrator who relays this to us, the one who calls her our Portia, as in “Other girls … are polite enough to save their weeping for the bathroom mirror, the dirty dishwasher—the moon!—but not Portia. Not our Portia.”
Which is to say what makes Portia’s navigations interesting are her reasons for taking them—by which I mean her navigations with men, both the husband and would-be lover, along with the so-called “felon,” and a man in the hospital who calls her “The Whore of Babylon.”
Our Portia loves music: “Listening to a song you’d waited all day to hear was like being aligned …with the benevolence of the universe.” She admires a famous musician whose name is a bit of an anagram of her own; she imagines him visiting her; she muses about him often, and we read about this and her many other musings, which for her are often manifest; for example, she sees and hears this musician, imagines him present, although he in fact, is dead.
In addition to songs she writes—which we don’t really have access to, although we do have access to some of the words of the songs of the one she admires, in addition to his letters, letters to his lover—we see that Portia’s mission is to create herself; she experiences difficulty getting by, completing things, satisfying herself. She seems to have trouble neutralizing her responses. It seems to start when she’s thirteen years old, and then later, she drops out of college where she’s majoring in music, and returns home to her parents, where she is for some reason sleeping on a couch in a living room, when her father hears her side of a sexually perverse conversation with a man her husband will later claim to be a felon—and is gravely concerned. Later, we will see that the father was an ally at earlier moments in Portia’s life, which is summarized for us with a twist: “It was Portia’s father’s fault that she expected to be treated as if her opinion mattered, as if her happiness was a worthy investment.”
In addition to music, Portia is compelled by the natural world—she’s a Vermonter, after all, and one of the most successful aspects of this book is the way it inhabits place: “The sky was gigantic, with stiff cathedral clouds;” the comparison here, referencing her husband: “…her love for him falling away like the banks of a river dropping into the water.” She is drawn to a man named Theo, who, like Portia, has a deep, almost impenetrable inner world that we hear about: he describes the eyes of a cat wherein he’s staring, “the exceptional feathery depth of them; the aerial depth, the way a forest appears from high above.”
And how she describes her initial attraction to the man who will become her husband: “like the electricity in the air before a storm or the weight in our lungs before you begin to cry.”
So, while she meets her husband, Nathan—a prosecutor, a lawyer—the day she’s released from her first hospital term—of three weeks—still donning the wrist band—there will be an inner pulling toward Theo, who will be a part of a band she creates with her old school chum, Carrie, whom she met in health class, when the teacher shared his abstruse way of categorizing students.
Most of this takes place in Vermont, in various weathers, in various locales but honoring its small-town culture, except for a short trip to New York City that Portia and Nathan take, wherein Nathan makes clear that he has some interesting quirks, himself—quirks that border on cruelty:
“Nathan had lived in the city during his late twenties. Portia expected that he would be comfortable finding his way around, navigating the subway maps, which reminded Portia of the path of a virus or something equally terrifying and unhelpful. She was surprised when, after a morning at the Museum of Natural History, Nathan stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and turned to her.
‘It’s your turn,’ he said….
‘Did you expect me to do all the work?’
Later on, he will complain that he’s ‘the one who has to walk all the way over there. If you really want to hug me, then you wouldn’t make me work for it.’
Our Portia’s observations are nothing if not sensual, if not original offerings for the reader: when a nurse reprimands her for expressing her suffering over a cesarean when the resulting babies “always have such round skulls,” Portia thinks, “It seemed that the prettiness of her baby should outweigh the shock and indignity of having been rummaged through like a handbag.”
This raises the question of what it means to be bipolar, along with what it means to be an artist, to be seeking, to be obsessed with the self and her purpose. Portia’s thoughts re analysis: “To be misinterpreted was torture, but to be figured out was a kind of death.”
And such is the balance as she persists in her mission to “find that incorruptible identity she was always searching for.”
It is a mission that exists both existentially and literally, for what she perceives as her purpose: “Sometimes Portia felt so helpless in the unfolding of certain ideas. It could take such a long time—a lifetime, on some occasions—to create something worth creating, and then even longer for the world to accept it. All she wanted was to be able to translate the enormous, godlike buzzing in her head into something that other people could see, hear, or touch. She wanted to be recognized by others in the sense that she wanted to be recognizable; as herself, which was at the same time lowly and miraculous.”
At times this novel resembles an elaborate incantation from which one senses conflict from the outset; it persists, grows, and whether or not it resolves is what keeps the reader reading into Portia’s unusual, often self-destructive manner of engagement with the world that threads her life.