Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Heartbreak Hotel - Deborah Moggach

Russell Buffery, known as Buffy, is a retired actor. He's living in London, increasingly discontented with his neighbours & lonely, apart from the company of his dog, Fighjnnnnnnnnnnnn. His personal life is complicated to say the least. Married three times, he is now single. He has three children, Quentin, Tobias & Bruno, from his first two marriages & two daughters, Celeste & Nyange, from other relationships. He also has a much-loved stepdaughter, India, who was the daughter of his second wife, Jacquetta. Don't worry if you're confused. There's a very helpful reference list at the beginning of the book! Heartbreak Hotel also seems to be a sequel of sorts to an earlier book, The Ex-Wives, which I haven't read. If you have read it, you'll be familiar with the tangled relationships.

Buffy's life as an itinerant actor involved lots of time spent in boarding houses & B&Bs. One of his favourite landladies was Bridie, who owned a boarding house in Edgbaston. When Bridie retired, she moved to the small town of Knockton in Wales where she ran a B&B, Myrtle House. Buffy & Bridie had an affectionate, convenient relationship. They slept together when he was staying in Edgbaston but there were no strings which suited them both. As Bridie said,

'Darling, not only are you married already but I've got my family here, thank you very much.... Lodgers are a lot less trouble than children, even when they're actors, and besides, they pay me.'

Now, Bridie has died & left Buffy her house. Buffy decides to leave London & move to Knockton. He fancies himself as a B&B owner &, although he loves his children, they're grown-up with their own lives. Buffy needs a new start & Knockton just might be it.

Buffy loves Knockton & the locals immediately. Everyone seems friendly & happy with their lives, more or less. Myrtle House is a bit more of a challenge. The house is large, draughty & only has two bathrooms. The facilities are not really up to scratch. However, Bridie had a loyal clientele & a few guests do arrive. Buffy is too kind, & too lonely, to throw the guests out after breakfast if the weather's bad so he often finds himself offering coffee or something stronger & chatting to his guests which tends to eat up the profits. He's a kind man who is happy to offer a shoulder to cry on & he's amazed by the personal stories that people are willing to share. Voda, the young woman who used to be Bridie's cleaner, agrees to work for Buffy & she begins to sort out the publicity as well as the cleaning & cooking. Buffy's accountant daughter, Nyange, attempts to sort out his finances & his stepdaughter, India, arrives to help out as well.

Buffy realises that he needs to do more than offer B&B in a rundown house in the middle of nowhere. His great idea is to run courses for the recently divorced or those who have split up where they can learn the skills that their other half had - & took with them when they left. Whether it's gardening, cooking or car maintenance, or his own specialty, how to talk to women, Buffy is sure that there's a growing group of single people looking for help. What he doesn't expect is that the courses will be successful but not always because the clients learn the skill they lack. Romances blossom & both clients & teachers find new direction in their lives.

The structure of the novel was interesting, introducing new characters that seem to have nothing to do with Buffy until they all end up at Myrtle House. There's Amy the makeup artist who finds that her life is spent travelling from one film set to another. When she's at home, she feels increasingly remote from her boyfriend & when he leaves, she realises that she's 35 & has no life, no partner & no family. Monica is in her 60s, works in finance & is finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with her colleagues. She hasn't had a relationship for a long time & spent the best years of her life in an affair with a married man who wouldn't leave his wife. Andy is a postman who loves his job. He drifted into a relationship with single mother Toni & now feels under pressure to perform as a partner & as a lover. When Toni gets into buying & selling houses, he realises that he can't go on playing a role he's unhappy with. Harold is a would-be novelist who is trying to write a comic novel narrated by Mary Pickford's cat. He's getting nowhere & then his wife, Pia, leaves him for another woman. They all find themselves at Myrtle House & their lives are changed by the experience.

I loved Heartbreak Hotel. There's a cast of thousands but I didn't find it difficult to keep track of who was who or who was with who. Buffy is a sweet man, kind, generous but well aware of his faults & the personal failings that scuppered his marriages. He has loving relationships with his children although they treat him more as a friend than a father. He hasn't been there for much of their lives but his influence on them all has been benign & without resentment. The Knockton locals are an interesting bunch & realistically flawed. There are just as many unhappy people in small towns as there are in London & Buffy's innovations at Myrtle House have an effect on the locals just as much as the people who come to learn something new.

I read Heartbreak Hotel courtesy of NetGalley.

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