In this comic novel, a young Midwestern woman moves to an eccentric residential hotel in New York City.
Heather Baumhauer, 27, fresh master’s degree in hand, has no intention of staying in her tiny hometown of Poubelle, Wisconsin: “I’m not going to spreadsheet my life away in snowmobile insurance.” She dreams of moving to New York, where she can meet people from other places and have exotic experiences like riding the subway, eating real bagels, and working in “Something just really international.” Desperate for affordable housing, Heather discovers The Zonderling, a residential hotel for women run by the Altruistic Army. The hotel bears some resemblance to the famous Barbizon (“In the world of New York boardinghouses, the Barbizon was an elegant, fashionable sorority house. The Zonderling was a scrappy Muppets’ Happiness Hotel”). Bathrooms are shared, electricity is sketchy, and few rooms have air conditioning—but the rent remains affordable, something of a miracle. A friendly resident named Jennifer Vang fills Heather and her new North Dakotan roommate, Emily, in on other Zonderling denizens: “Stinky Carrie and Porn Lisa, not to be confused with Normal Lisa,” for example, and the infamous Loretta, an elderly longtime resident who annoys everyone. Heather and Emily pursue employment and learn how to get along in New York, finally joining Jennifer to bring Loretta her richly deserved comeuppance. Niebruegge (Mistake, Wisconsin, 2014) is a gifted comedy writer, with the gems coming fast in this zippy novel. She deftly skewers New York types like “classic finance bros” or ventures like the Urban Woodsman Workshop, whose wooden toys are handcrafted upstate: “The toy manager called it ‘farm to playground.’ ” The novel explores the culture clash faced by Emily and Heather with insight as well as humor; it’s not that Midwesterners aren’t aggressive, but they “preferred hate-baking a cake without adding enough vanilla, and giving it to their nemesis with an I-hate-you smile.” Her portrait of The Zonderling, however zany, feels both affectionate and authentic, leaving readers wanting more.
A hilariously funny, compact volume about a hotel’s denizens that delivers well-aimed zingers—a winner.