Noelle is an efficient and friendly hotel cleaner, a model employee. Or so she’d have you think. The trouble is that she can’t help taking a little ‘souvenir’ as she cleans. Nothing of value, just tokens of happy, normal lives: a lipstick, a hair clip, some tweezers. And by the time the guest has noticed, she’s long gone.
As she starts at her 21st hotel, she’s determined to beat her record of one month in a five star hotel before suspicion falls on her. But when she meets her new colleagues, her plans are complicated. These women aren’t just hands pushing carts down lonely hotel corridors: they are women with lives full of happiness and worry, pain and joy. The kind of lives Noelle has never known how to live. They make her wonder what it might be like to have real friends, people to stick around for.
Will the women at Hotel 21 give her the courage to claim the life she deserves, or will her old habits come back to haunt her?
Noelle moves from hotel to hotel never making any connections and is determined to avoid them for fear that she will start to feel something. She only stays long enough to get her fix, because she can’t help but take little souvenirs from the hotels where she works as a cleaner. She is an adept storyteller, fitting in by changing her personality enough that she is never suspected should things be reported as missing by the guests, but that’s as far as it goes.
But when she starts working at her 21st hotel, something is different. Working on the seventh floor with Phil, Mali, Rose and Gaby she realises that she isn’t the only one who is hiding who she is from the world. Each of these women has another side to them. Whether it’s Phil, an attractive, flirtatious woman who has made quite the impression on Noelle, or Gaby whose teenage son is a drug addict who steams from her. It’s at Hotel 21 that Noelle realises she doesn’t have to be alone…
Slowly, Noelle discovers that her urge to steal is being replaced with the ache of attraction for Phil who is making her feel things she has never felt before. Phil seems to understand her though Noelle is hesitant to open herself up to the possibility of being hurt.
The more we dig into Noelle’s personality the more we learn about what led her to this place, starting with the horrifically confusing and abusive relationship she had with her mother Erica. She grew up with mixed messages. Like her, her mother had two different sides to her, the one she presented to her colleagues – the pleasant woman who couldn’t do enough for her friends and boasted about having a wonderful daughter – and the woman who beat and punched a child who couldn’t defend herself against the attacks.
At Hotel 21, Noelle gets to discover a different side to her personality, the person who wants to do more than just skate beneath the radar. She finds that despite what she has told herself since she escaped from her abusive childhood, she wants to fit in, she wants to make friends, and she wants to be a part of something. In realising this she is letting something go and watching as she realises this is a revelation.
The flashbacks can be a little confusing at times, and I did have to go back and re-read sections to make sure I hadn’t missed something when new characters like Bernadette were introduced. However, once I grew accustomed to the way that Rich wove Noelle’s past into her present I was able to continue reading with only moments of confusion.
I loved the relationships that Noelle finally allowed herself to build. It seems that upon realising that getting close to people and giving herself the chance to make friends didn’t make her weak she realised that she wasn’t the only person in the world with a complicated past or things that she didn’t want to reveal to the world. Her relationship with Phil confuses her and this bafflement just makes her even more human. She acknowledges her attraction to this other woman but doesn’t understand it and appears to resent how vulnerable and unsafe it makes her feel…until she allows herself to experience something other than fear.
The book ends on something of a hopeful note, though I am not going to spoil it…but I enjoyed my stay in the Magnolia Hotel getting to know the tapestry that Senta Rich wove into the story of Noelle and the first friends she allowed herself to open up to.
- Shows the value of friendship and how friends can make you stronger
- Noelle, the central protagonist is less than perfect, which makes her all the more relatable
- Wish we’d seen more of her childhood – though it was awful