A ghost in a down-at-the-heels London hotel ties together three tragic romances in Hoffman’s latest (Skylight Confessions, 2007, etc.).
Though all three episodes are strongly conceived with complex characters, the connecting material includes carelessly repetitive plot devices (warring sisters, cancer-stricken mothers), highly improbable links among the major figures and a seriously overused blue heron. The “third angel” metaphor is also heavy-handed, but at least has a tangible connection to the plot. In addition to the Angel of Life and the Angel of Death, Dr. Lewis tells his daughter Frieda, there’s a Third Angel, “who walked among us, who sometimes lay sick in bed, begging for human compassion.” Frieda passes along this insight to Allie, who marries Frieda’s dying son Paul during the summer of 1999 in the novel’s first section. Though Allie’s furiously jealous younger sister Maddy does everything she can to destroy the wedding—including sleeping with Paul, who’s trying to convince his fiancée that he doesn’t deserve her—nothing can kill the love that blossoms in Allie as Paul’s illness grows mortal. Section two moves back to 1966, when 19-year-old Frieda has fled her father’s plans for her to become a doctor and gone to work as a maid at the Lion Park Hotel. Frieda falls in love with Jamie, the junkie rock star in Room 708, and writes him two songs: “The Third Angel” and “The Ghost of Michael Macklin.” The latter is about the specter introduced in the book’s opening pages, when Maddy hears shouting in Room 707 and learns that something terrible happened there in 1952. In fact, it was Maddy and Allie’s mother, then 12 years old, who witnessed the incident that created the ghost, an outgrowth of yet another doomed wedding. The particulars are recounted in the closing section, which features another cluster of full-bodied characters. By now, however, the piling up of disasters and coincidences has become ridiculous.
Some moving material about love and loss, swamped by authorial excess.