If Deborah Moggach’s latest novel were a coffee, I think it would be a cappuccino with chocolate and cinnamon sprinkled on top. Beneath the sweetness and the froth sits something which slips down easily but gives satisfaction, at least in the short-term. I read Heartbreak Hotel in two sittings, but separated by several weeks. Often when I return to a half-read book I struggle to remember who is in what relationship with whom. I had no such problem with this novel and picked up the threads easily. Given the number of characters in the book this is a tribute to the vividness of Deborah Moggach’s story-telling.
Our ‘hero’ Buffy, an erstwhile thespian with an extremely chequered past, unexpectedly inherits a B&B hotel in a small town in the Welsh Borders from Bridie, his one-time theatrical landlady. The hotel and the geographical setting are very different from those in Deborah Moggach’s previous novel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but people go to both to find a solution to the problem of how to live out their lives. A mixed group of people went to India in search of a pleasant way to spend their retirement years; an even more assorted bunch of the ‘lovelorn or abandoned’ fetch up at Buffy’s Myrtle House ‘to learn the skill their partners had’.
When Buffy first hears of his fortuitous inheritance, he has no idea where the Welsh border town of ‘Knockton’ is, and its location remains vague but convincingly in the Marches, the author being sensible to place it far enough away from Welsh Wales to avoid any language complications. There is, unsurprisingly, plenty of Welsh rain!
Deborah Moggach is a prolific novelist and some of her earlier work addressed dark themes, such as Porky (1983), but there is nothing heartbreaking in Heartbreak Hotel beyond the title. It is richly comedic in a very visual way. Take, for example, the scene in which Nolan, the instructor on the car maintenance course, is made up by Amy, one of his students who is a professional make-up artist, to look as if his eye has just been taken out by a vampire, only to be interrupted… But I won’t spoil your enjoyment of the book by giving away who interrupts him, or the consequences of that!
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel transferred brilliantly to cinema, and I understand that Deborah Moggach is adapting Heartbreak Hotel for a TV series. I think she very possibly wrote the book with this in mind from the start, because she breaks it up into chapters, or sections within chapters headed by different characters’ names, shifting focus from one to another as she does so. In the earlier chapters of the book we to and fro quite a bit between quite a few characters, and I would have found a list of dramatis personae quite helpful. The author does actually provide such a list to help us navigate our way through Buffy’s various wives and offspring and could usefully have extended this to the whole cast of characters.
The comic twists and turns in this novel and its larger-than-life characters remind me of the quirkily humorous cartoons of Posy Simmonds, whose graphic novel, Tamara Drewe was also successfully adapted for the screen.
Heartbreak Hotel is that excellent combination, an easy read and a well-written book, with a touch of poignancy at the end. All’s well that ends well as, like Shakespeare, the author pairs off the hapless characters, though not as they or we had originally expected.
Promoting novels is a multi-faceted task these days, where so many books are competing for a share in the market. There is a final comic twist at the end of Heartbreak Hotel when the author directs us to her website to view some videos on ‘Courses for Divorces’ (or should that read divorcés?) adding that ‘You might even meet someone from the novel.’ I, of course, couldn’t possibly say whether or not you will.