The Hotel New Hampshire is the second of John Irving’s books I’ve read, and I’ve come to notice a pattern.
My first encounter with Irving was with his 1998 release, A Widow for One Year. A hefty tome, weighing in at 537 pages, it profiles the intertwined lives of Ruth Cole and Eddie O’Hare, the latter of which has an affair with the former’s mother, only to meet again over thirty years later when they are both—albeit Ruth more so—successful novelists. Many other plotlines are intertwined to create an intricate story spanning several decades.
A similar time frame occurs in The Hotel New Hampshire, which was published in between Irving’s two most well-known novels—The World According to Garp (1978) and The Cider House Rules (1985) in 1981.
The story begins with the courtship of Win and Mary Berry, parents of the narrator, John Berry. They meet and fall in love while staying at the hotel, Arbuthnot by the Sea, in Maine one summer, which forms the basis for Win’s idea to open The Hotel New Hampshire later in the book. As the summer draws to a close, the couple are engaged and Win sets off to attend Harvard while Mary plays housewife and gives birth to their children, Frank, Franny, John, Lilly and baby Egg.
This is where it really starts to get good.
Win buys the abandoned girls school in their childhood neighbourhood of Dairy to turn into a hotel, primarily to meet the needs of all the parents who visit their boys—and later girls, as the school becomes co-ed—at the local boarding school. The whole family, including the grandfather, Iowa Bob, move into the dilapidated building with immovable furniture and “miniature-sized” bathrooms stemming from a mix-up during installation at the female seminary. They are followed by the housekeeper, Ronda Ray, whom John has his first sexual encounter with, and Mr and Mrs. Urick, the hotel chefs.
Many coming-of-age milestones take place at the Hotel for the Berry children: Egg is revealed to be deaf; Lilly “doesn’t grow”; Frank acknowledges his homosexuality; John has his first sexual encounter with Ronda; and, most poignantly, Franny is gang raped by Chipper Dove, the captain of the Dairy School’s football team, and his fellow team-mates. Junior Jones, also a member of the team and leader of the “Black arm of the law” comes to her rescue, and the two form a close bond.
Around this time, the family Labrador Sorrow and Grandfather Iowa Bob pass away. Frank feels sorry for Franny, who repeatedly bathes away the “scent” she is left with after the assault, and wants to cheer her up with a taxidermied reincarnation of Sorrow. Reincarnation is perhaps too literal a word, as Sorrow comes to Iowa Bob in a dream shortly before his death. Comically, Frank marvels at his preservation work, saying “I’ve done such a good job with Sorrow that Grandfather has had a premonition that Sorrow’s come home”. When this version of Sorrow accidentally falls from a closet in Iowa Bob’s room, it is too much for him and he has a heart attack. Frank feels badly.
Win gets a letter from Freud, the man Win worked with the summer he met Mary at Arbuthnot by the Sea, asking him to help him run a hotel in his native Austria. Win accepts, and the family move to Vienna to start up “the second Hotel New Hampshire.”
Before the Berry’s leave, a dance is held at the hotel. Junior Jones brings along his sister, Sabrina, to be John’s date. A rape victim herself, Sabrina is perhaps held up as a mirror to Franny, and what her life could become if she is able to get over her own trauma.
Mary and Egg take a later flight than the rest of the family, with Egg insisting they take Sorrow with them.
But they never make it to Vienna, as their plane crashes and the rescuers find only Sorrow floating in the water.
The family spends some years running the second Hotel New Hampshire, which houses businessmen on one floor, prostitutes the floor above them, and radical communists also taking up residence there. John becomes involved with one of the prostitutes/radicals, Fehlgeburt, who reveals to him a terrorist plot to bomb the opera and warns him to get his family out of the hotel.
Susie, an ugly woman dressed in a bear suit, is hotel security, and she becomes somewhat of a mother figure to Franny, as well as a lover. She, like Sabrina, is a character that shares similar neuroses about rape as Franny. Susie makes Franny “sing” in ecstasy, while Franny gives Susie the confidence to overcome being raped with a bag over her head so her attackers didn’t have to look at her.
During this time, Franny and John finally act on their attraction—but it goes much deeper than that; love—for each other and share a kiss. Following this, they avoid the hell out of each other to prevent committing incest.
The recurring theme of “Sorrow”, the black dog omen that was with the family during Franny’s rape and the deaths of Iowa Bob, mother Mary and Egg, pops up again at this juncture.
Frank and John see two of the radicals, Arbeiter and Ernst (who also shares a sexual relationship with Franny) driving along the streets of Vienna with a bomb in the back of their car. A bomb “that was as weighty as Sorrow, that bomb was as big as a bear”. Funnily enough, John reads in one of Frank’s books about the opera, that a bomb exploded during a performance of Lucia, “the mad story of a brother who drives his sister crazy and causes her death, because he forces her on a man she doesn’t love… well, you can see why this particular version… would seem especially appropriate, to me,” so John likes to believe the bomb exploded during a different opera.
As the date of the opera bombing approaches, Ernst informs the blind Freud that he will be driving the car with the bomb in it. If Freud “fuck[s] it up… we’ll kill them all,” Arbeiter informs him.
Furthermore, the radicals decide to use the Berry’s as hostages if the bombing doesn’t go to plan to gain worldwide recognition. “We’ll have an American family as hostage. And a tragic American family, too. The mother and the youngest child already the victims of an accident… And here we have a father struggling to raise his four surviving children, and we’ll have them all captured,” Ernst says.
In the aftermath of the bombing, Freud is killed as he took on the role of suicide bomber, along with the radicals, while Win is blinded by the blast. No one inside the opera is hurt, and the Berry’s become international heroes, which little Lilly capitalises on with the publication of her memoir, Trying to Grow.
“‘Now that I’m going to get published… I’ve got to keep growing… the next book has to be bigger than the first. And the one after that… will have to be even bigger,” Lilly says. Lilly will succumb to the pressure of failing to live up to her first book, and commit suicide.
“Sorry… just not big enough,” her suicide note would read.
John tells Frank, “… It would take anyone longer to cover twenty blocks and a zoo than it takes to fall fourteen stories— the distance from the window to the corner suite on the… fourteenth floor to the pavement…” as he beats himself up over not being able to save her.
The family does enjoy one last victory before Lilly’s death, though, and that is Franny’s revenge on her rapist, Chipper Dove.
Lilly crafts a script—“a real opera, a genuine fairytale”—which casts Susie the Bear as—what else?—a bear cum rapist, Franny and Frank as insane, and John as the only normal one, whom Chipper believes is an ally, with prostitutes and fellow rape victims in supporting roles. While the faux-bear-rape of Chipper serves as symbolic closure for not just Franny, but The Hotel New Hampshire as a story, it isn’t over yet.
Because, “as in any fairytale, just when you think you’re out of the woods, there is more to the woods than you thought…”
And so Sorrow returns in the form of Lilly’s death.
The rest of the family, however, go on to live relatively happily for the rest of the tale. John plays along with his blind father’s wish to run a third Hotel New Hampshire, a “joke I have played on Father for all these years”; Franny and John finally act on their incestuous love and get it out of their systems; Susie “exhausted her bear’s role” with Chipper Dove, and becomes John’s lover; Franny and Junior Jones get married, get pregnant, and get rid of their baby by giving it to John and Susie.
The Hotel New Hampshire is very much a novel about family, even more so than it is about coming-of-age, “Sorrow” and perseverance, and the ups and downs of this very eccentric one that Irving has crafted. As radical Arbeiter says, “Americans are simply crazy about the idea of the family.”