AUGUST 21, 2018
WHEN RICHARD, her film scholar husband, is killed in a hit-and-run, Clare would be perfectly justified in ditching their plan to attend a horror film festival in Cuba. But there she is, a mere five weeks later, fingering the useless second set of tickets on the flight to Havana. She imagines a run-in with someone from her town in upstate New York: they’ll snap photos, make small talk, and inevitably ask, “What are you doing in Havana?” For Clare, that answer is complicated: “She might have said, I am not who you think I am. She might have said, I am experiencing a dislocation of reality.”
Who are we within a marriage? Is there room for secret selves without hurting those we love? Can we be separate yet create a united front? From the start, we know Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel will not be a typical summer read with such questions at its heart. Despite its Cuban setting and tempting August publication, The Third Hotel is eerie and uncanny, layered and sharp. It will not be that book slipped into the beach bag to read in fits and starts while waiting for friends to arrive. It will be consumed in lieu of being present. The waves can wait.
It’s 2015, and Cuba is experiencing its first tourism boom in decades. Luxury hotels are being erected with a post-modern aesthetic that contrasts with the old modes of Soviet brutalism and colorful art nouveau, and Cuban filmmaker Yuniel Mata’s Revolución Zombi is repurposing bunkers from the Cuban Missile Crisis as backdrops for his politically charged horror film. Clare wanders through the festival in a haze. Without Richard, her life is unmoored.
And then she sees him taking in the sunrise in a white linen suit she’s never seen before.
Shifting between Clare’s past and present, the novel examines marriage and solitude through the framing of her husband’s absence and eerie reappearance. Van den Berg (The Isle of Youth, Find Me) presents Clare and Richard’s relationship in sparkling fragments that reveal their unspoken fear of being seen completely, of being known from all sides and angles.
Just after their wedding, Clare discovers the extent of her husband’s weighty student loans and extensive credit card debt, details kept under wraps during their flirtation. A year later, to celebrate their first anniversary, the couple sets off for Nevada — a compromise that includes Las Vegas for Clare and Death Valley for Richard. When their car breaks down in the middle of the desert, the pair spends a harrowing night atop their sweltering car listening to the coyotes howl.
In the morning, a woman on her way to church rescues them with the caveat that they accompany her. As the service comes to a close, the pastor asks the congregants to close their eyes and invites sinners to receive God’s forgiveness. Clare keeps her eyes open and watches as people make their way to the front of the church. Suddenly, Richard “shot up from the pew and then he was on his knees, crawling fast toward the altar.” Her perception of their relationship shifts: “Clare did not tell him how left behind she had felt in the pew, a door slammed shut in her face and now she would have to figure out how to crack it back open — or not.”
Arguably, this betrayal forms the foundation of Clare’s veneration of secrecy as armor against the vulnerability of intimacy. As a result, Richard’s secret life remains mostly a secret. He takes up walking in the evenings, his gait changes. Yet Clare never badgers him about his newfound flânerie, where he went or what he thought about: “[S]he respected his privacy, his desire for whatever solitary strangeness he was seeking, though later it would occur to her that maybe she had misjudged the situation and solitude wasn’t what he wanted at all.”
Meanwhile, Clare relishes her frequent work trips selling premium carbon elevator cables to hotels and businesses across the Midwest for the solitude and independence they afford her. She enjoys life on the road, the magic she experiences in the mundane. Driving along the highway in her rental car, she watches the wheat ripple like waves, the sun glinting off silos. She catalogs the dentures she finds in a seat pocket on a flight to Toledo, the hotel room phone that mysteriously rings on the hour in Wichita. Opening a nightstand drawer in Omaha, she’s amazed to find a pinkie fingernail, perfect and intact, lying inside. In the light from her bedside lamp, it has “a pearly translucence” like “a precious thing on display,” and she fights the urge to swallow it. This, for Clare, is breathtaking and strange.
In the year leading up to Richard’s death, Clare’s work trips become a point of contention, as she begins to feel more at home on the road than she does in New York: “She wanted to be married and she wanted to leave; the two did not seem mutually exclusive. She had this second, secret self that she didn’t know how to share with anyone, and when alone, that self came out into the open.”
She reveals this truth obliquely to the increasingly insecure Richard, telling him, “[I]n a hotel room her favorite thing in all the world was to switch off every light and everything that made a sound — TV, phone, air conditioner, faucets — and sit naked on the polyester comforter and count the breaths as they left her body.”
What she describes is delicious solitude, a temporary retreat into solipsism. Richard reacts with anger, shouting, “Naked!” as if this detail were the first step in unraveling an infidelity.
The reader may very well wonder what ties Richard and Clare together. Their passions divide them, with Clare hankering to fly away and Richard spending his time analyzing film in the belief that it offers its own precious solitude: “[O]nce the theater went dark and the film began, the viewer was alone — even if they had arrived in the company of others.”
They have no children. There is care, yet their marriage seems defined by a shifting respect for the other’s right to exercise their independent identity through secrecy — they put great value on “privacy, that most essential armor.” It’s telling that, in Havana, Richard lives in a sparse room with only one chair sidled up to his table: a “single chair suggested solitude […] in this life, he was alone.”
Strikingly, van den Berg allows the novel’s central mystery to stand unchallenged. The Third Hotel is not bound up in a neat little bow: the reader is never told whether Richard is real or a fever dream of Clare’s grief-stricken imagination. Rather, scenes and circumstances become increasingly bizarre until the reader is unsure whether even Clare can claim credibility as a reliable witness.
Moreover, van den Berg’s use of details furthers the novel’s uncanny atmosphere — particular and unexpected, they evoke the bizarre certainty of the dream world. Only in a dream would someone lick a mural at a cocktail party and describe the chalky flavor of a painted tree; find an opalescent fingernail resting beside the King James Bible in the nightstand of a Nebraska hotel room; or watch her dead husband run away upon calling his name, jump onto a motorbike, and slalom through raucous Havana traffic as if he’d been doing it all his life, as if he’d never had a life with her. Additionally, The Third Hotel’s consciously fractured style, which allows the reader access to Clare’s past alongside her present, echoes the jump-cut transitions of a film.
Van den Berg also subtly captures the nuances of the female experience. To be a woman alone is to be a target of harassment and misogyny so casual and pervasive that they’re almost difficult to decipher. Clare is approached more than once by an unaccompanied man, “baring his teeth” in greeting, who talks at her more than with her. Their presence is often unwelcome, a repetitive, low-level annoyance that seems to be a feature rather than a bug of being a woman in Cuba, in Florida, in any public space.
Without being told, a teenage Clare comes to understand that “if you risked your body, that most precious commodity, it was only a matter of time before you were punished.”
Confronted with pressure to fall into one of two boxes — childish innocence or overt sexuality — Clare tests the boundaries. She talks to strange boys in chat rooms who sometimes turn out to be men. In the far reaches of a Kmart parking lot, she kisses many of them. She dry humps. One night she goes skinny-dipping with another at Crescent Beach, “and in the water he brushed her wet hair from her face, so very tenderly, and said, I wish I could rape you right now.”
Then he laughs — it was only a joke. As a college junior, she immediately dumps her boyfriend when, the anger twisting his face into “something both unrecognizable and terribly familiar,” he punches her in the mouth, and she discovers that risk doesn’t have to be overt to be present: “[The danger] had been walking her to class, studying next to her in the coffee shop, sleeping in her bed.”
Even Clare and Richard’s meet-cute is no exception. One summer, she begins to notice a man following her through the university campus where she works as a librarian. Her first instinct is to question her interpretation — he can’t possibly be following her. Yet when he trails her to a coffee shop, she spins, “ready to scream and toss hot coffee in his face if that’s what it took to get away.”
Richard, embarrassed and alarmed, calms her with an apology and an admission that though his intent was to ask her on a date he’d “gone and done it in the wrongest way possible.” Clare cracks up in the face of it, “almost on her knees with laughter.” Does the fact that the reader knows they fall in love and marry offset the discomfort? When they tell the story of how they met, “[Richard] always failed to mention his eventual confession to Clare: that he had felt terribly humiliated by her laughter, […] even though she had every right to laugh or scream.”
And Clare can’t help but wonder if humiliation is somehow easier for women to bear, since “the world kept insisting they were built for it.”
Though subtly drawn, what it means to be a woman becomes just as central to The Third Hotel as the mystery of Richard’s reappearance. Powerful and atmospheric, van den Berg’s novel portrays a haunting descent into grief and the mysteries we can’t quite solve while advancing a thought-provoking exploration of marriage, misogyny, and the loneliness that lurks within unwavering privacy.