Third Hotel (van den Berg)

The Third Hotel 
Laura van den Berg, 2018
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
224 pp.

In Havana, Cuba, a widow tries to come to terms with her husband’s death—and the truth about their marriage—in Laura van den Berg’s surreal, mystifying story of psychological reflection and metaphysical mystery.

Shortly after Clare arrives in Havana, Cuba, to attend the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema, she finds her husband, Richard, standing outside a museum.

He’s wearing a white linen suit she’s never seen before, and he’s supposed to be dead.

Grief-stricken and baffled, Clare tails Richard, a horror film scholar, through the newly tourist-filled streets of Havana, clocking his every move.

As the distinction between reality and fantasy blurs, Clare finds grounding in memories of her childhood in Florida and of her marriage to Richard, revealing her role in his death and reappearance along the way.

The Third Hotel is a propulsive, brilliantly shape-shifting novel from an inventive author at the height of her narrative powers. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Raised—state of Florida, USA
Education—B.A., Rollins College; M.F.A., Emerson College
Awards—(see below)
Currently—lives in Cambridge Massachusettes

Laura van den Berg is a novelist and short fiction writer. In addition to her debut novel, Find Me (2015) and The Third Hotel (2018), she has published two volumes of short stories, The Isle of Youth (2003) and What Will the World Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (2009).

Other short stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Freeman’s, The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and One Story, and have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her criticism and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, O, The Oprah Magazine, BOMB Magazine, and

Van den Berg also teaches writing. She has taught at Columbia University, the Fine Arts Work Center in Providence, Rhode Island, and the Bread Loaf Conference. Currently she is a lecturer at Harvard University and Warren Wilson College.

She and her husband, writer Paul Yoon, live with their dog in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rosenthal Family Foundation Award (American Academy of Arts & Letters)
Bard Fiction Prize
Pushcart Prize
O. Henry Award
Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Prize
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia and the author's website. Retrieved 8/24/2018.)

Book Reviews
There's no denying [van den Berg's] skill at rendering this material; her sentences, at their best, are extraordinarily lucid.… These descriptive passages may come off to some readers as clutter, but they serve to ground a story that sometimes feels elusive and vague.The novel’s intellectual and philosophical excursions are less successful, to my mind, than its concrete descriptions.… Read [The Third Hotel] as the inscrutable future cult classic it probably is, and let yourself be carried along by its twisting, unsettling currents.
J. Robert Lennon - New York Times Book Review

There’s Borges and Bolaño, Kafka and Cortázar, Modiano and Murakami, and now Laura van den Berg. The acclaimed author of two story collections and a novel, van den Berg has always been good, but with The Third Hotel she’s become fantastic—in every sense of the word.… The fantastic plot is elevated by van den Berg’s fantastic writing and unique twists of language.… These sentences aren’t flourishes of showoff; nothing unoriginal slips by in this flawless novel… so much subtextual lava is coursing under the surface of every page of The Third Hotel that the book feels like it’s going to erupt in your hands.
Randy Rosenthal - Washington Post

Laura van den Berg is an artist of the uncanny. As with some surrealist painting, devour her work quickly and the trick will not snag.… Clare’s eerie perceptional wobbles are conjured beautifully by van den Berg, who sees like a painter and narrates like a crime reporter. To read The Third Hotel sometimes feels like following a character based on Joan Didion sinking deeper into a universe whose laws were written by Patricia Highsmith.… We are anchored by loss, set free by love, cliches tell us. What, this exquisitely written book asks, if it’s the opposite? In doing so van den Berg drives home an inversion far scarier than any zombie film.
John Freeman - Boston Globe

It's a quicksilver novel—just when you think you have a possible grip on its plot and meaning, it slithers out of grasp. The Third Hotel works its magic at the level of the subconscious, where nightmares are made.
Jenny Shank - Dallas Morning News

Reading Laura van den Berg's disquieting new novel, The Third Hotel, is akin to walking out of a dark movie theater into bright sunlight. Part of you is still living in a cinematic dreamscape. The real world is what's imaginary.… [T]he writing is lovely and fluid. She is comfortable with ambiguity, and The Third Hotel isn't intent on resolution. It reminds me of another hotel, that one in California, where "you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." Haunting.
Nancy Pate - Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Third Hotel contains all of the ingredients for a classic work of horror.… Not every author can make a character both fly through supernatural events and remain grounded in a place the way van den Berg does with Clare. The strength of van den Berg’s storytelling comes from Clare’s attempts to solve the mystery of why Richard has hunkered down in a different country, layered with grief from back home that continues to haunt her. She’s a “final girl” whose denouement horrifies in a modern, bloodless way.
Bethanne Patrick - Time

Van Den Berg doesn't do neatness. She does elegance. She writes with off-kilter beauty and absolute relaxation; the less peaceful a sentence should be, the more peaceful it is.… The Third Hotel is a novel that operates in symbols and layers, which means you can read it however you like. There's no one ending, no right answer, and as a result, it will take away your internal compass. It will unmoor you, send you wobbling around your house in a haze. It will slide some eels under your skin. My recommendation? Let it. We can all stand to learn some new truths.
Lily Meyer -

Eerie and uncanny, layered and sharp.… Though subtly drawn, what it means to be a woman becomes just as central to The Third Hotel as the mystery of Richard’s reappearance. Powerful and atmospheric, van den Berg’s novel portrays a haunting descent into grief and the mysteries we can’t quite solve while advancing a thought-provoking exploration of marriage, misogyny, and the loneliness that lurks within unwavering privacy.
Lauren Sarazen - Los Angeles Review of Books

A twisty exploration of grief and perception as well as the ways in which we contribute to our own undoing.
Julia Pierpont - Oprah Magazine

Strange, unsettling, and profound from start to finish, The Third Hotel is a book teeming with the kind of chaos that can only emanate from the mind. It could be fairly described as a meditation on grief, or marriage, or travel; fresh insights on each materialize regularly, at enviable levels of nuance.… [van den Berg] gets under your skin and hits bone. Hers is a terror tale as mercurial as life, veering between the grisly and the gentle.… The Third Hotel ultimately probes one woman’s reaction to the senseless.
David Canfield - Entertainment Weekly

[M]ysterious and engrossing.… Toying with horror tropes and conventions …van den Berg turns Clare’s journey into a dreamlike exploration of grief. This is a potent novel about life, death, and the afterlife.
Publishers Weekly

A surreal meditation on grief and loss.… Atmospheric descriptions of Cuba, and references to horror-film tropes… are integrated throughout, providing additional layers of richness. Verdict:… this novel has a dreamlike quality that resists narrative structure and logic. —Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
Library Journal

Brooding, often-surreal, funerally bemusing …van den Berg's entrancing, gorgeously enigmatic tale dramatizes the narcosis of grief.

The line between the real and the imagined is forever blurry, and the result of all that ambiguity is both moving and unsettling.Gorgeously haunting and wholly original; a novel that rewards patience.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers Talking Points to help start a discussion for THE THIRD HOTEL … than take off on your own:

1. In the first sentence of the novel, Clare wonders: "what was she doing in Havana?" She considers telling anyone who might recognize her, " I am not who you think I am." Or even, "I am experiencing a dislocation of reality." Why is she experiencing such uncertainty about her identity as well as her purpose for visiting Cuba? What do you think she means by "a dislocation of reality"? And, finally, what do you think all of this suggests about Clare's sense of herself?

2. Follow-up to Question 1: Does your initial perception of Clare change during the course of the novel?

3. What were your initial thoughts when Clare sees and follows her husband. Did you consider it/him a ghost, an impostor, or a hallucinatory vision?

4. As the novel progresses, what do we learn about the state of Richard and Clare's marriage? How would you describe their relationship?

5. Do you find yourself impatient with Clare's negation of herself and her surroundings: she wishes to "be free of past and future, of memory and feeling." What about her penchant, for example, of turning off all light and sound in hotel rooms; the fact that she never enters the theater for the movie screening, or that she doesn't correct the person who mistakes her for someone else? Is this Clare's way of expressing grief. If so, do you find her sympathetic?

6. Follow-up to Question 5: One character tells Clare she is deranged. Another says that the grieving are dangerous, like "injured animals with fearsome claws, bloodied and pushed into a corner." What do you think of Clare's mental/emotional state?

7. Why might the author withhold so much information from readers: the unopened white box found by her husband's body; what her father said to her, which left her unable to speak in full sentences; the red notebook, which she slams shut; the unopened envelope from her father; phone calls that are silent on the other end or filled with static? Recall, Clare's quip to a new friend, "Americans like straight answers" and "simple stories."

8. Follow-up to Question 7: Do the author's revelations at the end satisfy your questions?

9. How would you describe this book: a police procedural, a ghost story, a thriller, a philosophical query into self-identity and death? All, or none, of the above?

10. The professor of quantum physics tells Clare that "We are all erasing ourselves a tiny bit at a time." He goes on to say, "Drinking, fantasies, secrets, denial, hysteria, double lives, suicide, ennui, schemes. Those are just a few of the ways we disappear." Why do we want to erase ourselves? And what does these observation suggest about the thematic concerns of The Third Hotel?

11. What was your experience reading Laura van den Berg's novel? Were you intrigued or mystified? Enthralled or irritated? J. Robert Lennon, the New York Times reviewer, while somewhat critical, predicted The Third Hotel will become a "cult classic." What do you think?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2020