Friday, March 6, 2020

The Chelsea Girls

Title:  The Chelsea Girls
Author:  Fiona Davis
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2019. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1524744581 / 978-1524744588

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the dead of night, during the dreary month of March, the Chelsea Hotel is a quiet place."

Favorite Quote:  "And many of you bought the lies ... You didn't question them. You didn't fight back. You let this happen ... This is how a society is corrupted, from the inside out. We must make a promise to not ever let this happen again. We must promise to be vigilant against our own worst tendencies. Only by doing so will our country sustain its ideals of freedom."

Fiona Davis's books to date follow a similar structure and style. Two women. Two time periods. One city. One beautiful old building. A book that tells both stories in alternating sections, winding them closer and closer together until by the end, all the connections are revealed, and the stories find a path forward. The locations are typically in New York City - the Barbizon Hotel, the Dakota, and the Grand Central Terminal. The previous three books have featured two women each linked by their connection to the location of the book. Along with the story of the women is a history of the location, which I find fascinating.

The Chelsea Girls is similar to some extent. There are two women. There are two time periods, if only briefly. The story structure, however, ends up completely different from the first three books I have read by Fiona Davis.

The two women are Hazel and Maxine. They meet during the war, as performers in a USO troop. The form a friendship that spans a lifetime but is not always a friendship. "How tenuous the line is between friends and enemies in a world at war." Their story is not just about their friendship but about their careers and about the history that they live through.

The story begins with a prologue in March of 1967. It begins at the end as an unnamed woman contemplates the end of her life. From there, the book goes back to 1945 and chronologically tells the story of these two women in the intervening 2 decades.

The location of the name is the Chelsea Hotel, originally built in 1880s. It was once a haven for artists of all types with residents ranging from authors like Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac to musicians such as the Grateful Dead and Madonna to many others throughout the visual and performing arts communities. Unlike Fiona Davis's other books, the location is not central to the story. It is fitting given that the main characters are performers, but it is not the story.

More than the location, this book is about the history of the time period. In particular, this is a book about the threat of communism and the McCarthy era. It is about the targeting of the art community by the McCarthy hearings, and it is about the truth and lies behind the accusations of those investigations.

The disappointing aspect of this book is that it differs so from the previous Fiona Davis books. I suppose that is a fallacy of my own expectations. I have loved learning about the architecture and history of the buildings, and that is missing from this book.

Interestingly, the book leaves me with questions about the ending as well. First is a minor point. One misunderstanding between the two friends is the result of the supposed actions of the Chelsea Hotel manager at the time. These actions seems to be diametrically opposite to the the descriptions of him throughout the book. It leaves a jarring note.

Second, the entire book seems more focused on the journey of one of the women, and yet the ending seems more about the other. It makes me wish I knew more of her story throughout. It leaves me a little disconnected.

I suppose that is my overall reaction to the book. I enjoyed reading about the McCarthy era. I wish I had learned more about the building. The characters and the story itself seems a little distant and seems to miss the emotional connection.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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