The well-born and the downtrodden live out their fates against the backdrop of a Berlin luxury hotel in Baum's 1929 bestseller.
The legacy of Baum's novel is not just the 1932 MGM film starring John Barrymore and Greta Garbo (and the 1980s Broadway musical), but all those star-stuffed movies and fat popular novels—The High and the Mighty and Airport among them—in which some institution or event serves as the setting for the intersecting individual dramas. What distinguishes the book from its plump progeny is not only its relatively modest length but the delicacy of Baum's writing. Her characters and situations range from the swoony (the aging ballerina worn out by the demands of her art) to the romantic (the nobleman-turned–rakish jewel thief) to the melodramatic (the dying middle-aged clerk blowing his savings for a taste of the life always denied him). Throughout, Baum writes with the melancholy glissade of a mink stole sliding down a shoulder as a fabulous evening comes to a close. The hotel becomes a stage, and Baum is the novelist as choreographer, guiding her characters smoothly through their steps, regarding them with sophisticated though not unsympathetic irony.
The book is kin to both the stories of Stefan Zweig and the films of Max Ophüls, both artists who chronicled devastating loss but drew our eyes to the exquisite fluidity with which the most precious things slid through their characters' elegant, manicured fingers.