Based Upon Availability
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'?: Based Upon Availability
I met Alix Strauss, author of Based Upon Availability, while I was in New York City for BEA. I immediately loved her, and had already jumped across the table to snatch her book when I was visiting with some folks at HarperCollins. The book was described as “dark”, and I think what I heard was “covered in chocolate and dripping with diamonds.” That’s how fast I grabbed Based Upon Availability. Meeting Alix was awesome, though I then worried about the possibility of not liking her book. It’s happened before, that I met an author first, read their book, and didn’t like it. It was awkward (for me), and the author eventually unfollowed me on Twitter (surely not because I didn’t like the book… I’m sure my tweets were boring). So there was a certain amount of trepidation surrounding this book for me. But guess what? I loved it.
I found myself staring off into space thinking about the book, which is what I do when I love a book. And there’s this one scene that I can’t get out of my head, and the scene just reverberates over and over. I admit to having a terrible memory, the kind that you expect in your 104-year-old grandma, but I will not forget the scene. It’s not because the scene is horrific or shocking or gruesome, but Strauss sets up the whole story for this very last thing that happens, so it definitely leaves an impression.
The strength of Based Upon Availability is in the author’s ability to convey a character’s deepest fears, anxieties and insecurities within a few short pages. Robin aches to have a good relationship with her sister. Sheila wishes she could find a man. Trish wants the old days back with her best friend, her best friend who was once fat but is now skinny. Franny wants to connect with someone, anyone, and finds a connection with her neighbors when there’s a fire in their apartment building. Lou, a washed up singer who hasn’t been sober for almost 20 years, would do anything for the golden days again.
These are short, interconnected stories, held together by Morgan, the manager of the Four Seasons, the hotel that these women have in common. Morgan goes into guests’ rooms and takes a pill that they have, whatever it is. She pokes through their luggage, always careful to leave things as they were. She’s stunted in that she still thinks and talks to her dead sister every day, who died when Morgan was only six years old. She thinks about how better her life would be if her sister hadn’t had cancer.
There wasn’t a single woman that my heart didn’t reach out for. It’s such a cliche to say how ‘raw’ the book was, but I really felt like the emotions and insecurities were so close to the surface that if I reached out, I might be able to touch them and see what they feel like. I was almost embarrassed by Morgan’s attempts to reach out to Trish. I wanted to tell her to not let her feelings be so naked. But what’s wrong with putting yourself out there, letting yourself be vulnerable?
Trish’s story, and particularly the ending to that story, is what has stayed with me. Strauss hits on a theme in society that continues to frustrate and sadden me: “When everyone has left you, at least you’ll be thin.” I just want to cry over that statement.
Common through all of these stories is each woman’s need for connection, but they’re unable, for one reason or another, to make that connection. It reminded me of the need that everyone has of being loved, of having a friend, of mattering to someone else. Trish could see that Morgan was reaching out to her, but she was too wrapped up in her own problems to reciprocate. I couldn’t help but think how much better off they might have been if they’d at least had each other.
Even scenes that are silly and funny belie a deeper meaning. Morgan, in one of the hotel rooms, steals a sex toy and then prances around her apartment with it on. It’s a brace that holds her rigid, but ironically gives her the ability to breathe deeper than she can during the day. It releases her somehow, gives her a freedom that she feels when she has it on that she doesn’t feel when she has it off.
My only complaint, like any good book of short stories, is that I’d love to see Strauss write a novel about one person. I would have liked more time with each character, and I wonder what Strauss could do with one person over the course of 300 pages.
Rating: 92 out of 100
Book Club Cheerleader: Better Than Room Service!
Have you ever stood in the lobby of a 5-star metropolitan hotel speculating about what really goes on within such a sumptuous establishment? Ever wonder if it might be even remotely possible that someone similar to you has checked into that penthouse suite? Well, place those musings into Manhattan’s Four Seasons Hotel and you have the premise of Based upon Availability, a novel by Alix Strauss, a lifestyle trend writer who appears on national morning and talk shows.
In Availability, Strauss takes you into the lives of eight very different but equally compelling women; all of whom are connected in some way to Morgan, the hotel’s seemingly “got it all together” general manager and the book’s central character. The author uses her “lifestyle trend” expertise to describe each character’s individual struggle to establish truthful, meaningful human connections.
Aside from the aforementioned Morgan, who is still grieving for the sister she lost over 20 years ago, we meet Louise, a drug-addicted, faded rock star attempting rehab in the hotel’s Suite 2410; Anne, a sad and lonely hotel concierge suffering from OCD; and Ellen, a decorator whose self-worth is irretrievably tied to her ability - or lack thereof -to conceive a child. Not to be overlooked are Robin and Vicki who manage to take sibling rivalry to a whole new level. Hooked yet?
You’ll be sorry if you dismiss this novel as merely another shallow beach read. While Availability is without question imminently entertaining, it is also an insightful and engrossing character study of eight women not so very different than you or I. Looking past their superficial differences, you will find yourself identifying, in at least some small measure, with each and every one of them—like it or not! Who cannot relate to feelings of isolation—whether it be in the middle of Manhattan or simply at a family gathering? And who among us has not had to face the heartbreaking reality that the object of our deepest affection—be it lover, sibling or friend—doesn’t share that emotion?
Availability is smart and unpredictable, and alternately dark and humorous. Strauss’s writing is superbly crafted as evidenced by how she conveys each character’s story in a manner that is simultaneously concise, yet complete. I found that the ties she established between each character to Morgan and the Four Seasons were incredibly clever, yet totally believable. The primary strength of this novel, however, is Strauss’ ability to not only cause us to relate to these characters but to also make us care what ultimately happens to them—yes, even Lou, the druggie!
Availability is a natural choice for book clubs. Members will relish hashing over the all-too-real trials and tribulations of these Manhattan ladies. And when these individual scenarios are played out in the suites, offices, bars and restaurants of a swanky Manhattan hotel, you’ve got one truly satisfying read—on or off the beach!
– Kay Hodges
In this novel of loosely connected stories, a group of eight women fumble through heartache, loneliness and idiosyncrasies of fate that lead them stumbling into the future. The story begins with thirty-something Morgan, a woman who uses her elevated position at the famed Four Seasons Hotel to snoop through the guests rooms and relieve them of their personal effects. Due to a tragedy in her early life, Morgan is unable to make emotional connections with those around her and finds herself drifting further and further away from the people in her life. As Morgan's story winds to a close, we meet Anne, a shy and unassuming woman whose mind is plagued by the obsessive-compulsive disorder that takes over her life. As Anne moves towards a new and healing relationship, she discovers that things are not at all what they seem and is left even more broken then she assumed she could ever be. Following on Anne's heels is Trish, a woman whose jealousy and desires are creeping into her life in an alarming way, wreaking havoc on both her old friendships and new. Trish is hoping to find a soft place to land, a friendship that will edify as well as enrich her. Ellen is manifesting the symptoms of a hysterical pregnancy, driving her husband and family away with her ever-growing neurosis, and Robin is about to perpetrate a truly horrifying act on a sister that has abused her all her life. Shelia is hoping that her lover will suddenly change his mind about leaving his wife, and rock star Lou is being sequestered in a hotel room in an attempt to kick her raging drug habit. Franny is living a life of appearances and is clinging to a fantasy that will never bear fruit, frantically attaching herself to the strangers who pass through her life in an attempt to wring some meaning from her life. All of these women's lives intersect at crucial moments, but none are able to stop the terrible slow motion destruction of any of the other's futures. Both raw and uncomfortably moving, Alix Strauss deftly imagines the hidden lives of a group of women desperately in search of meaning and belonging.
About once every year, I do a reread of one of my favorite books. The book is called Self-Help, written by Lorrie Moore. Self-Help is a group of short stories that all share the themes of death, loss and isolation. I know, I know, it sounds kind of depressing, but the thing that keeps me coming back is the haunting humanity that comes through in every page, the subtle nuances of life that Moore captures in her ultra-realistic characters. I was wonderfully surprised to find a lot of the same qualities in this tale. I would be a little hesitant to classify this book as a novel (as it's suggested by the title), rather, I would call this a group of character sketches that share a lot of the same themes and subjects and that expertly capture the overwhelming sadness that sometimes permeates the everyday life.
One of the things I most enjoy about a good character driven novel is the fact that, if done well, it's interesting to recognize the emotions and traits of the characters in relation to myself. This book excelled at this. It was humbling and almost searing to watch these women painfully expose their true selves and maneuver around others with their frailties worn on their sleeves for everyone to see. Their embarrassments were magnified, their isolation seemingly extreme, and their self pity utterly exposed for all who cared to look. It was almost painful to read about how broken these people were, to see them caught in lives that had no meaning and lost not only to one another, but to themselves. These were successful women who had no success in the arenas of their hearts and minds, whose neuroses were only thinly covered by the egos that protected them. As each woman comes forward to expose her true self, it's as if she is shedding her skin to reveal the unfinished being beneath, the part of her that is too fragile to see the light of day and must hide beneath the veneer of polish that she presents to the world.
I do think that there were some women that I connected with in this story more than others. I felt particularly engrossed in Robin's story of revenge, and though it was appalling and frightening, I couldn't help but feel that she finally got the vindication that she deserved. I also felt very moved by Ellen's story of her turmoil with the false pregnancy. I thought it was very interesting to see someone so caught up in mental confusion while the world looked on in pity and derision. I think Ellen's story hit me the hardest, though I also felt for Anne and her struggles with OCD. Other stories didn't affect me as much. For example, I found it really hard to connect with Shelia and her obsession with her married lover, or Franny and her co-dependence. I think this might have been because these two women had very different morals and mindsets from myself and I felt like I couldn't understand their plights as well. Their emotions were still touching and painful to read about, it's just that I lacked the internal component for them to resonate with me.
The various themes that were addressed in this book were done in such an elegant and personal way that I really found myself moved by the book. These women dealt with some heavy and emotion-laden issues. These issues are things that we hide under our mental bed and never admit to others, and in revealing them Strauss makes her characters particularly vulnerable and afflicted. While I was reading this book, I wondered just how many women out there are suffering under the yokes of these same horrible feelings, how many are walking around looking whole while feeling so emotionally scarred and damaged. The book speaks of strong women with powerful weaknesses, heroes who all carry their fatal flaw just under the surface. As these women struggled through their days and nights, their wounds became ever more noticeable and debilitating until there was barely enough skin to cover them from the world.
I can't tell you how much this book moved and haunted me, and the types of emotions that it brought forth while reading it. I think may writers have tried to achieve this effect in their books and I definitely felt that Strauss did it better than most. Though this book is a very dark look into the lives of damaged women, I feel that almost any woman who reads it will be able to recognize the feelings and behaviors that come creeping from these pages and be able to humbly feel for these women who try so hard to maintain their unaffected facade beneath the penetrating glare of the everyday. I think this book is another that I will be rereading from time to time, not only to explore the rich world of emotion that Strauss creates, but as a way to connect with the some of the universal feelings that we, as women, share and undergo. A very powerful and moving read. Highly recommended.
Alix Strauss's Based Upon Availability has an intriguing premise: eight women are all somehow connected to the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan. Two work there; one has an affair there; one has a sister who stays there; one applies for a job there; one detoxes there; one spends a morning there for brunch; and one hosts a party there. Strauss tells each of these women's stories over the course of one chapter or several, and sets a pivotal moment in those stories within the walls of the luxury hotel. Many of the women cross paths at some point or another as well.
These stories are connected thematically too. Each of these women is experiencing some sort of isolation or disconnection in her life. There are troubled family relationships with parents and siblings. There are soured romantic relationships. There are psychological demons - OCD, substance addiction, phantom pregnancies. And there is the type of loneliness and jealousy that life in New York City can inspire - the feeling that everyone else is living the life you want. This is not a sunny book - these women's lives can be downright depressing. But Strauss is a compelling writer, and she makes her characters relatable and interesting. It's a little hard to keep all of the women straight, but it doesn't detract from the book.
Strauss uses a lot of detail and sharp observation to draw a robust picture of these women's lives, even in a single chapter. (Morgan, the hotel manager, gets about a third of the book.) I ultimately liked this book a lot, despite the somewhat choppy structure. From what I've read about Strauss, she is keenly interested in moments of pain and crisis in women's lives, and the resulting quest for redemption that either triumphs in the end or is defeated by circumstance, often tragically.
– Gayle Weiswasser
Book Crossing: Based Upon Availability
Although the years have passed, Manhattan’s Four Seasons Hotel manager Morgan has never moved beyond the death of her beloved older sister Dale, who died of leukemia when they were children. Morgan has no one to talk to and has not had anyone since Dale died though she is always there for her mom especially on her late sister’s birthday and death day. This is ironic to Morgan as she is seeing someone, but cannot truly tell anyone how much she wants to talk to Dale.
When Morgan meets art gallery owner Trish, she believes she has met a similar hurting kindred spirit. Trish has never moved passed her fiancé dumping her just prior to their wedding and her friendship with her BFF seems over as her former buddy gets married. Trish, like Morgan, sees a kindred hurting spirit and soon they meet others like them.
This is a poignant drama as the audience sees deep inside Morgan, Trish and several other women. Alix Strauss escorts readers behind closed doors of the hotel that serve as a metaphor for taking fans beyond the closed doors into the minds of various people. Morgan is terrific as she with the hotel holds the story line together as readers meet a horde of women (besides the two above) with diverse relationship issues; as one never fully moves on passed a trauma.
– Harriet Klausner
Dolce Bellezza: Based Upon Availability
Alix Strauss uses the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, NY, as the background for a Based Upon Availability. She has created fascinating female characters whose lives intersect against the backdrop of the hotel. Each woman has her own particular set of woes through which she is struggling, and I found I could identify with each one even if her life isn't necessarily indicative of my own:
Morgan is the manager of the Four Seasons, mourning the death of her sister in their childhood
Anne is the girl at the front desk with an obsessive compulsive disorder, tapping on the door frames, organizing the sugar packets, hanging on to assorted items she feels will bring her luck
Trish struggles with her adoption and the engagement of her best friend, Olive
Sheila has an affair with a psychologist, Marty, who is Morgan's uncle
Robin is a real estate broker who has a tumultuous relationship with her bullying older sister
Ellen longs for a baby so badly she is convinced she's pregnant, but she can't convince her husband
Louise is a train wreck of a rock star whose manager has locked her into a room at the hotel to detox
The lives of these women are beautifully portrayed causing me to feel their pain and sympathize with their situations. Strauss' writing is exceptional; through her exploration of women's lives today, I am comforted that I'm not the only one who feels overcome from time to time with minor trials or disappointments which seem huge. Or, which will become huge if not confronted.
The storied Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan is the backdrop for a unique novel about the secrets that women carry. Based Upon Availability by Alix Strauss ties eight women's stories into the hotel, with Morgan, a sales manager at the hotel, at the center of the story.
Morgan's life seems to revolve around a tragedy that occurred in her youth. Her older sister Dale died when she was just eleven years old, after a long, protracted illness. Her sister's death has held the center of Morgan's life. Morgan is angry when no one, not even her parents, remembers the anniversary of her sister's death.
Morgan has idealized a relationship with her sister, imagining all they would have shared had Dale lived: boyfriends, husbands, being an aunt to her sister's children. This imagined sisterly relationship is contrasted with an actual sisterly relationship between Robin, a real estate agent, and her sister Vicki. Vicki is horrible to her sister, treating her worse than one would treat an enemy. She uses Robin, who only wants a close relationship with her sister. Vicki tortures Robin incessantly. The tables are turned in a horrible incident that takes place in the hotel. One has to wonder if Dale had lived, would their relationship be more like the idealized one Morgan imagines or would they have a dysfunctional sisterly relationship as Vicki and Robin do.
All of the women harbor secrets, and try hard to hide their dysfunction. Morgan surreptitiously takes room keys from the hotel, and during the day, lets herself into rooms to rifle through guests's belongings. She imagines the kind of life they lead, and when she finds a sexual item, she steals it, hoping no one reports it missing. Anne works at the hotel and desperately tries to hide her obsessive-compulsive disorder. Through online dating, she meets an artist who works with "found objects", and he proves to be her undoing.
Franny was my favorite character. She is in her late thirties, a Southern belle who relocated to Manhattan. She works as a seat filler for award shows and Broadway openings, an exciting, though lonely, occupation.
“At the end of an exhilarating evening, getting on a bus or sitting alone in the back seat of a cab dressed in other's people's gowns she'd purchased at consignment shops and on EBay, with no one's hand to grasp, was devastatingly lonely. At home, though she could sit anywhere she wanted, she never found a comfortable spot, a place where her body could just relax.”
Sometimes when novels had many characters, they can all blend together in the reader's mind, but Strauss excels at creating unique, individual women with words like that. Of Honor Kraus, a high-powered "PR icon to the stars", Strauss writes "she wears success like the wash boys in the kitchen wear their cheap cologne—strong and powerful". From those words, you get who Honor is right away.
All of these women are sad, and their relationships with themselves and those they love is tenuous. Ellen wants so badly to be pregnant that she convinces herself she is, driving her husband away. Morgan wants a sisterly relationship with Trish, a gallery owner, who has a complicated relationship with Olive, an artist. Franny falls for a neighbor, and wants deeply to be a part of all of her neighbors' lives.
This is not a happy book. But the women in it will haunt you, as you ponder what secrets the women you know harbor within themselves. It may even cause you to look inwards at the secrets you keep about yourself.
– Diane La Rue
The fantastical and wondrous Manhattan’s Four Seasons Hotel is the “set” for this imaginative and brutally honest novel that introduces readers to lives that are intertwined by fate, happenstance, pain, and hope.
As we open to the first page, we meet Morgan. Morgan is the hotel manager – the woman who literally takes care of the famed Four Seasons. She is also the one who holds all the duplicate passkeys to all the rooms…and uses them to discover the ins and outs of her guests. Every nook, cranny, and crevice is Morgan’s to explore, and she does this with wild abandonment. As she goes through things, and delves into the lives of the people staying with her, she thinks about her mother – a woman whose loves included restaurants, theatres, supper clubs, and, her husband, the surgeon. Her dislikes, unfortunately, seemed to include being a mother to her children. It is the anniversary of Morgan’s sister’s death, and not one person – even Mom – seems to remember it or note that it is a sad anniversary for the whole family. As we follow Morgan through her “undercover” spying, we also meet her boyfriend – who is way too much man for a woman who hasn’t seemed to embrace her adulthood as of yet, seeing as that she throws herself into the arms of one of her young staff members in order to have a tryst that will prove to her that she’s still alive. Also involved in her life is her Uncle Marty, who uses the hotel for all of his affairs; a rock star who needs to use the hotel as a detox center; and, a young woman named Trish, who spends half her days wishing she were an accomplished artist like her parents so she won’t let them down, and the other half worrying about her best friend who has had severe weight loss and is about to marry a man who is absolutely no good for her.
We meet Robin staying in Room 1512, who is picking up her horrific sister at the airport because she’s coming to NYC for a visit. This is that sister who you can’t be friends with, let alone even like, and what she does with her sibling will blow your mind. Ellen is a decorator who is trying desperately to get Morgan to give her a job at the Four Seasons re-doing a room. Ellen is in her own little world, thinking about how happy she is that she’s finally going to have a baby after all these years of trying. Unfortunately, her creative mind far outweighs the truth. Franny Jamison is a southern belle who loves the big city and ends up as a part of the Four Seasons story when a fire takes out her apartment building. Sheila in Room 1608 is a teacher who meets a man at Starbucks – a doctor who specializes in OCD cases. He’s the love of her life, she thinks, until she realizes that she may just be another notch on his Four Seasons’ bedpost. Louise is a rock star trying to figure out where, exactly, life is taking her; and, Anne is the Front Desk Concierge who is a mass of fear, panic, and rituals that help to keep her together. She is the sibling that makes her parents happy – seeing as that her brother is locked up in an institution because his OCD got too far out of control. She will do anything to be the “normal” one, and the Four Seasons is her backdrop while making her way through a very destructive, frightening world.
The magic of hotels is legendary. From Beverly Hills, where stars hid in their bungalows and lived lives that not even the National Enquirer could figure out; to the fabled mystique of places like the Four Seasons, where the “walls” played host to peoples’ darkest moments.
Quill says: Although the lives of these women portray some extremely harsh topics that are presented in a brutally honest way, their stories weave together like a quilt…a quilt of life that offers happiness, love, pain, death, and romance, that will sometimes have the reader gasping at the secrets unfolding before their very eyes.