“The Paragon Hotel,” by Lyndsay Faye, is one of those "can't put down-er” books. You'll want to keep reading until your body forces sleep upon you.
The novel is parceled into sections of "then" and "now," which turns out to be essential in describing the life and hazards of the main character, Alice James. The novel begins with "now," the young woman on a train bound for Oregon in the early 1920s, trying to escape Nicolo, a cruel Mafioso with whom she shared love as an adolescent.
Alice was born and reared the first few years of her life in Little Italy, in New York City, the only daughter of an Italian immigrant father and a Welsh immigrant mother. After her father met an untimely death (from a dog bite, of all things) the family was left destitute, forcing her mother into prostitution and alcoholism. This led Alice, inevitably, to spend most of her life on the streets. How many of us could survive this at age six?
After a violent argument, Nicolo shoots Alice, and fearing for her life, as well as suffering from infection from the gunshot wound, she boards a train bound for Oregon, the only place far enough way she can think of, as she tries to escape more violence and the likelihood of being murdered. The infection worsens, and a Black Pullman Porter, Max, recognizes that she will likely die if she doesn’t get immediate help.
On their arrival in Portland, he takes her to the only place he knows where she can get the care she needs: the Paragon Hotel, a huge edifice of 400 rooms open only to Blacks, presided over by Mavereen, who runs the place according to her own strict rules—which definitely do not include ministering medical aid to a dying Caucasian woman. At Max's pleadings, Mavereen reluctantly installs Alice in a room, where she is able to slowly regain some degree of health, aided by Dr. Pendleton, an excellent African American physician who also happens to own the hotel.
After she begins to recover, Alice meets Blossom, a gorgeous nightclub singer whose past includes appearances at the best of clubs in Paris and San Francisco. Their improbable friendship grows quickly and is a major reason why Mavereen relents and allows Alice to stay at the hotel.
I don't want to give away too much of this book, but suffice it to say that it includes emotions and mistreatment that range from kindness and love to unspeakable violence. (Those with queasy stomachs best avoid the latter scenes.) The violence is not gratuitous, however, and is consistent with the story, the villains ranging from abusive policemen, to the Mafioso to the KKK.
In the last part of the book, Faye delivers a marvelous twist—you have to be a literary genius to pick up on it immediately. I had to double back and reread pages a couple of times to see if I really understood it.
"The Paragon Hotel" is a fine, fun read. It gives insight into life in the lower parts of New York City and in Oregon. I had no idea, for example, that Oregon had strict laws prohibiting Blacks from living in the state well into the 1900s.