The story follows the character Edith Hope who is taking an impromptu vacation at the Hotel du Lac after some unnamed event in which she has somehow embarrassed herself and her friends. The hotel is in Switzerland in an unnamed place on an unnamed lake and this very lack of naming serves to highlight the exile to which Edith has been subjected. The hotel itself does not advertise, but relies on word of mouth to fill its rooms. It is the end of the season. The hotel is beginning to run down, the town is quiet, its residents are either locals or exiles like Edith. Not surprisingly, the hotel residents are mainly cast off women.
Edith, back in London, is a successful writer of romantic fiction (under a pseudonym, of course. One cannot, as a single woman of this era, be both free and successful) and approaches her exile in a defiant spirit, intending to work it out whilst working through her next novel. Instead she finds herself drawn into observations of, and the lives of, her fellow cast-offs serving their own exiles in the hotel. This includes Mme du Bonneuil, an elderly widow moved from hotel to hotel, cast off by her son. Monica, a beautiful aristocratic woman with a troublesome dog, cast off by her husband for failing to produce a child. Iris and Jennifer Pusey, less cast off than cast adrift, rich soulless women enraptured by their own self-absorption. And then there is Mr. Neville, an irreverent and somehow enticing man who offers Edith a way out of her imposed exile and isolation. Through the hotel residents Edith finds herself drawn into their small dramas, and through their dramas we come to understand Edith’s own.
This is a book of contradictions. Edith is presented as a woman who is quiet and timorous, lacking in boldness or direction. And yet she retains a core of defiance, an unwillingness to change in order to achieve that mythical, fairy tale ‘happiness’ that all women are supposed to desire (marriage). You get the impression that Edith is neither sad nor regretful of her actions, and that where she is happiest is living in her own space according to her own routine; the only thing which causes her regret or sadness is the way others expect her to do and be something different.
Don’t expect a lot to happen in Hotel du Lac, it is a book full of melancholy and grey reflections. Much of the action is ‘told’ by means of letters from Edith to David (a man with whom Edith has been having a secret affair), or through conversations on long, sad walks or over coffee and cake at the quiet local cafe. And yet in these quiet reflections there is a powerful message, a surprisingly unexpectedly feminist novel, expressed in the manner of passive resistance rather than direct action. In Edith we find an unapologetically individual woman, uncompromising in her own way, unwilling to sacrifice herself for the sake of expectation. It is a story I am sure many women will relate to. Perhaps it will make some readers mad, perhaps the slow pace and quiet resistance will be a bit frustrating. But in its quiet, withdrawn way this is a magnificent book. Lightly told, deceptively simple, and beautifully written. A joy to read, and a future classic in the making.
Hotel du Lac receives a stately 9/10 Biis.