This is the way the world will end: not with a bang but with a Beverly Hills blowout. Or that’s the takeaway from the provocative and engrossing The Pink Hotel, the third novel by Liska Jacobs.
The Pink Hotel is by turns a love story, a social satire, an elegy for the planet, a farewell to the glamour of Old Hollywood, and, above all, a morality tale. Written mostly in third person, it introduces us to the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent as seen through the wide-eyed naïveté of country mice newlyweds Kit and Keith Collins, so just married that “grains of rice are wedged into the dark corners of her purse.”
Jacobs hangs out her ironic shingle at the get-go. The Collinses hail from the literal boonies—a Mendocino County town called Boonville, where Keith is the manager and Kit a waiter and aspiring sommelier at a modest but “authentic” eatery recently graced with a Michelin star. They are spending their honeymoon cocooned in “luxury with a capital L” at the Pink Hotel, a not-at-all-disguised facsimile of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The kicker? The couple aren’t in town just to celebrate their nuptials; they’ve also been lured by a job possibility for Keith. Talk about competing agendas.
The Beverly Hills Hotel, of course, holds a storied place in Hollywood. The Beatles once snuck into the pool after midnight! Cary Grant was a regular at the bar! Hepburns Audrey and Katharine crashed there, as we are repeatedly reminded in what starts to sound like a magical incantation, a prophylactic, perhaps, against the vagaries of the 21st century, when climate change, wage inequality, and the gaping chasm between rich and poor fuel civil unrest.
Jacobs gets the specifics right, describing gardens so lush they “create their own microclimate.” With its relatively small size and clubby insularity, the hotel is a kind of Downton Abbey for Beverly Hills, allowing an upstairs-downstairs drama to unspool in cushy cloistered claustrophobia.
This is the habitat where “the sleek animals live,” the playground of the rich and infamous. Jacobs depicts in delicious detail the “curled walls unfurling…into the grand foyer like a petal in the breeze.” It’s as though the “hotel was suckling them.” As a child, Keith dreamed of Egyptian cotton while being tucked into polyester; he is so smitten “he must press his hands together to keep from shaking.” Kudos to Jacobs for assigning a lust for high-thread-count sheets to the Mr. and not to the Mrs. It’s only fitting, since Kit is mostly along for the ride.
Meanwhile, wildfires have broken out in Southern California, and soon enough “entire mountainsides” are “smoldering like coal in a furnace.” The hotel becomes a “pressure cooker” in which Keith and Kit are thrown together with the coddled and their coddlers. These include the general manager of the hotel, Mr. Beaumont; his wife, Ilka, who can barely disguise her desire for Keith; and a midlevel hostess named Courtney, who has reinvented herself as Coco and is favored by the guests to whom she has ingratiated herself. Courtney has also pressed her cousin Sean, a hunky construction worker, into service. As someone who does not live on the grounds, he provides her with an outside-world perspective and Kit with a distraction from Keith’s obsession with the hotel.
If Jacobs’s descriptions of the staff are insightfully nuanced, her depiction of the wealthy is anthropological. Marguerite, “barely nineteen,” is first glimpsed by the Collinses in a billowing silk Diane von Furstenberg, with the kind of skin that’s “luminous from youth but also full-time dermatologists and aestheticians.” As soon as she sees Kit, she’s “running her fingers through her hair,” plotting how she’ll Eliza Doolittle her “new plaything” in “Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Balmain.” Her identical-twin cousins, Premier and Deuxième, are partial to “limited edition Piaget watches…luxury streetwear” and to pronouncements such as “billionaires are people too.” Like Marguerite, they have millions of followers on social media.
Then there’s Mimi Calvert and her capuchin monkey, Norma Jean. Calvert, a former actor who married rich, has spent 22 years at the hotel and never leaves the property; she subsists on dry martinis, bone broth, and crudités. Angelenos will understand her aversion to the outside from a single detail: that she’d be happy to “never smell Ralphs fried chicken ever again.” “Amen, sister!” I muttered, recalling the oily scent that clings to your clothing and your hair.
Los Angeles is a character also, and despite the threat of mudslides, drought, and earthquakes, the city retains its reputation for reinvention as a destination where insta-riches are seemingly always within reach. We have old money and new money and what might be called funny money. Everyone knows someone like my friend Craig, who was offered a role in Friends but turned it down, choosing instead better billing in a never-aired pilot where he played the buddy of a chimp.
The pulse-quickening possibility that churns just below the surface is no doubt why Keith anticipates that “this trip could change everything.” Yet, soon enough, the temperature ratchets from simmer to boil as wildfires and social upheaval inch closer, escalating tensions inside the fortress as libidinous escapades and palace intrigues ensue. What happens next won’t exactly surprise, but Jacobs delivers taut suspense as we learn who eats and who gets eaten. Can she top herself as she devises orgiastic debaucheries rivaling The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Eat the Rich? Yes, she can.
It’s all fair game for a takedown, and Jacobs spares no one, not even the reader. Her incessant name-checking of designers—I suspect she’s indicting our complicity in celebrating consumerism—sent me trolling the RealReal. Is anyone immune to the allure of “Temellini cashmere,” something I’d never known I wanted—no, needed—until reading The Pink Hotel? It’s interesting that Jacobs doesn’t challenge Old Hollywood’s patriarchal fiefdoms, but it makes sense as she contrasts the greats who once graced the grounds of the hotel, honing their craft, with the celebutantes now in residence, who produce nothing of consequence, instead dedicating their time to minimizing their facial pores.
Reader, whom you root for in this locked room of a novel will probably have to do with your own attitudes and point of view. Jacobs wants us invested in Courtney, Kit, and Keith, but me? I’m recently divorced and have a cold heart. I was rooting for the monkey.•