Even more abysmal than Stern's dreadful first novel, Longings (1988), here's a 352-page, fluffily far-fetched, modern-day fairy tale about a young woman's struggle to gain control of the hotel she grew up in. Run for 49 years by Karl Gustav-Becker, the grand old Waldhotel Pecker is quite a fixture in Baden-Baden. When the old hotelier passes on to that great suite in the sky (""Even in death. . .his main concern was the comfort of his guests""), his daughter Tilla takes over, but soon falls victim to a handsome opportunist named Peter Von Hastier, whom she hires as hotel manager--and who ends up robbing the hotel blind and running off with Tilla's petulant eldest daughter, Eva Marie. Tilla's mind cracks; her ineffectual husband commits suicide; and now the operation of the hotel is left to her beautiful young daughter, Karl, whose outlandish perils would give Pauline pause. Kati hires a handsome young French chef named Christophe, falls in love with him--and then finds out he's the son of Henri-Etienne de Beaumont, a rival hotelier who successfully schemes to take over the Waldhotel Pecker. Then Kati leaves Christophe (who protests that he has no knowledge of his father's plots) to become an apprentice chef in Paris, only to be horribly disfigured in a kitchen fire. Through the miracle of plastic surgery, however, Kati becomes beautiful once more, albeit completely changed in appearance. She heads back to Baden-Baden, gets a menial job at the old hotel under a pseudonym--and when Christophe discovers her real identity, the two marry and will now run the Waldhotel Pecker together. What might have been a serviceable romantic potboiler is, in Stem's leaden hands, a tortuous read indeed.