Liz Smith: Our Gossip Girl checks in on a hot summer read
"I VANT to be alone." So said Greta Garbo to John Barrymore in the fabulous 1932 MGM movie, "Grand Hotel." Garbo was playing an exhausted prima ballerina. (Come to think of it, Garbo always seemed exhausted onscreen.) Joan Crawford and a dozen other MGM luminaries also appeared.
The movie was based on the big bestselling novel by Vicki Baum. MGM remade it as "Weekend at the Waldorf" in 1945 and the genre of a glam ensemble cast in glam surroundings was truly launched. (The 1967 movie "Hotel" and the 1980s TV series of the same named followed the same pattern.)
Now, author Alix Strauss has written Based upon Availability, a novel about eight women who pass through NYC’s plush Four Seasons Hotel. It is "Grand Hotel" for the 21st century. This is the classic read-it-in-one-big-gulp book. Or spend several days at the beach with it; compelling from first page to last – edgy, moving, human.
Tomorrow Ms. Strauss and friends will celebrate the book’s release with a party at – where else? – the Four Seasons restaurant. There will be nibbling and noshing and sipping.
Oh, and I predict before the last hors d’oeuvres is consumed, Based Upon Availability will be on the fast track to big-screen option. This movie has eight, count ‘em eight, fascinating female characters. By this time next year eight great actresses might be toiling on location right here in Manhattan, bringing Alix’s book to life.
New York Post: Required Reading
From Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table to Eloise and the Plaza, colorful writing and New York hotels have made for a natural pairing. In her new novel Based Upon Availability, Alix Strauss takes on famed New York lodging the Four Seasons, filling the stories hostelry with colorful women characters who share a common bond—Morgan, the hotel's manager. Morgan may know just a little more than most about what goes on behind closed doors.
ELLE: Top 10 Summer Books for 2010
For every hotel guest, there’s a story behind their visit. “I’ve always had a love affair with hotels,” says author Alix Strauss. In her second book (her first was ELLE favorite The Joy of Funerals), she explores this fascination by sliding a microscope over eight women’s ostensibly ordinary lives at Manhattan’s Four Seasons Hotel. This posh place serves as a sanctuary of zen or an abode of anguish for an obsessing gallery owner, an abused realtor, a sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a drug-addict rock star, a famous publicist, a single teacher, a married woman desperately trying to conceive, and a hotel manager struggling with the death of her sister. These women’s interiors are exposed as they deal with love, family, sex, and power. This sharp and brilliant novel shows that truth cannot be seen from the outside. You’ll absorb every anecdote’s last detail as real human connection resurfaces and these women take steps to become the people they’ve always dreamed they’d be.
More: Behind Closed (Hotel Room) Doors
In Alix Strauss' novel Based Upon Availability, the women who stay at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City are troubled, lonely, secretive—and wholly relatable. They’re plagued by obsessions, and yearn for love and validation from their distant families. Some of them tangle with men, but the most powerful relationships are between women—sisters, best friends, and business partners.
Overseeing the Four Seasons is Morgan, whose tough self-reliance fails to hide the hole in her heart over her deceased sister. Although each of the women—too many to name here—are quirky and engaging, Morgan embodies their shared desperation and desire to survive. She has her own strange habits, most notably picking a hotel key at random each day and sneaking into a guest's room to poke into their personal lives. There is not a more fitting narrator.
Strauss has a knack for inserting the kinds of surprises that shock but also strengthen the impact of the novel. The stories bleed into one another as details and characters resurface in different chapters. Most enthralling is the anecdote (first introduced through Morgan) of a woman tied to a hotel bed, her hair chopped off and her body covered in blood and liquor. This seeming victim returns later, unexpectedly, as a guest-star in her sister's chapter.
The lure of the hotel is its transient quality. However much of a home it becomes to the shoppers, lovers, and refugees who stay there, once they leave, the place can be wiped clean, ready for a new inhabitant. The allure of this novel is that it offers a glimpse into the lives of complex, funny, real women.
Booklist: May 1, 2010
The women in Strauss’ mesmerizing novel all suffer from an inability to connect with family, with men, with potential friends. Morgan, a 32-year-old manager at the upscale Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, is still devastated more than two decades after the death of her older sister Dale. Constantly wondering how her life would be different if her sister was still alive, and feeling closer to Dale than anyone living, Morgan resents that her parents have bottled up their grief in a way she can’t. At work, Morgan sneaks into random hotel rooms to swipe prescription meds and study the belongings of the hotel’s various patrons. Strauss gives readers a glimpse into the lives of the women whose paths Morgan crosses, from the aging rock star whose publicist checks her into the hotel in a last-ditch effort to get her to sober up, to the obsessive-compulsive hotel employee whose boyfriend commits the ultimate act of betrayal, to a decorator so desperate to get pregnant that she comes to believe she actually is. Lonely and longing to be otherwise, the characters in this moving novel are achingly sympathetic, their plights imminently relatable.
From Strauss (stories: The Joy of Funerals, 2003, etc.), a novel concerning a Manhattan Four Seasons manager who witnesses the alarmingly bleak lives of women (herself included) confronting the loss of youth.
Morgan, 32, is haunted by her sister Dale’s death from leukemia when both were children. She alone in her family appears to still mourn Dale, and she can’t get close to her mother, who cares only for conspicuous consumption and her clique of ladies who lunch. Morgan has seen her Uncle Marty, a prominent shrink, escorting female patients to rooms at the Midtown Four Seasons, where she’s division manager.
Morgan’s inner emptiness—she’s just broken up with her too-dull, too-safe boyfriend Bernard—prompts her to take brief vacations on the wild side while at work. There’s the busboy she trysts with in the kitchen pantry. There are the hotel rooms she “inspects” at random, pilfering objects including an SM leather brace, which she finds oddly comforting to wear. Morgan encounters other women—guests, vendors, employees or clients of the Four Seasons—each of whom occupies her own section of the novel. Anne, a novice concierge, is obsessed with luck, charms and omens. Svelte, elegant Trish, adopted child of famous parents, struggles to distinguish herself, opening a gallery and hosting a weight-loss party for her BFF Olive, who, distressingly, is shedding Trish along with the extra pounds. Ellen, traumatized by two miscarriages, is baffled by the refusal of her husband and gynecologist to believe she’s several months pregnant. Mississippi native Franny, despite a lucrative career and a nice apartment, envies her blissfully coupled and child-blessed neighbors. Aging rocker Louise checks into the Four Seasons to detox. Trouble is, without coke, booze and pills, the space inside Lou’s head is as claustrophobic as her locked hotel room. Robin, a downtrodden younger sister, takes bizarre revenge on her manipulative sibling Vicki.
These New York stories, utterly wrenching with pessimistic undercurrents, will remind some readers of Parker—as in Dorothy, not Sarah Jessica.
Publishers Weekly: April 5, 2010
Strauss's stellar first novel (after story collection The Joy of Funerals) chronicles the loneliness of New Yorkers loosely connected by the swanky Four Seasons hotel. Hotel manager Morgan, Strauss's strongest protagonist, longs for the company of her older sister, Dale, who died of leukemia as a child. She's in a go-nowhere relationship and hoping to find a friend in Trish Hemingway, an artist and gallery owner who reminds her of Dale. Trish, meanwhile, is coming to terms with growing apart from her best friend, and she's not fully over her fiancé, who left her shortly before they were to be married. Subplots play out and scenes are revisited courtesy of a number of perspectives—hotel employees, friends and family, hotel guests—creating a near mosaic with twinges of darkness, thanks largely to the strange and unexpected things that go on behind hotel doors: the s&m gear Morgan steals after snooping in a guest's room, an abused woman found tied to a bed. Strauss's ending, which strives to be hopeful, comes off as abrupt; otherwise, this is quite sublime.