I knew a woman who traveled for business with such frequency that the first thing she did when she checked into her hotel room was take the phone book out of the nightstand and put it on the bed. Then, when she woke up the next morning, she would consult it to remind herself which city she was in.
As much as I love staying in hotels, I can’t imagine being that disconnected, but I suspect Joanna Walsh can.
In her book-length rumination, Hotel, Walsh reflects on the appeal of various types of hotels, from leisure resorts to business hotels to health spas and sanatoriums. In her mediations she makes use of all manner of historical and cultural figures like Freud’s case study of Dora, Mae West’s lips, and Marx Brothers’ scenes set in hotels.
“A hotel’s glamour is its guests. We must live up to our hotels. We’re on display. We’re what’s being sold. No need to ask us in like vampires: we invite ourselves. We are paying ghosts.”
Underneath Walsh’s clever wit and wordplay is a vein of melancholy that runs through the book. For a time Walsh worked as a hotel reviewer and she often found herself staying at expensive hotels alone. This was a relief as she was having marital problems, but instead of buying into the fantasy of escape, she fixated on what she’d left behind.
“My hotels do not resemble the home I long for, as I do not long for home. They do not resemble anything that can be longed for. They may resemble a longing for home, but they do not satisfy it.”
The more Walsh changes scenery, the less distinct each hotel becomes. It’s as if the brochure copy has conjured up a hotel of the imagination that she is always in the process of leaving.
“I have felt for a long while, maybe forever, that there is something not right about my life. The plot could be better, or maybe the scenery.”
Hotel—which is part of Bloomsbury Press’ Object Lessons series of books about “the hidden lives of ordinary things”—does not endeavor to explore all facets of hotel life. For instance, Walsh has little to say about hotel staff and writes sparingly about the decor; rather, she tells us what a hotel isn’t. Walsh mixes travel writing, pop culture, and personal narrative to great effect to underscore her own discontent.
“While having sex, I noted that, as the hotel manager had told me, I could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance through the window.”