With Heartbreak Hotel, Deborah Moggach brings back ex-thesp Russell “Buffy” Buffery, hero of her earlier novel, The Ex-Wives.
Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach
Chatto & Windus, 304pp, £14.99
Now in his seventies, he’s the veteran of three marriages, and has a range of grown children and step-children from these and other liaisons. Out of the blue he inherits a B&B in rural Wales, bequeathed him by Bridie, his friend and erstwhile lover from the days when she ran a theatrical boarding house in Edgbaston that he frequented as a young repertory actor. He decides that a man can be tired of London and not be tired of life, and heads west, to reboot his existence.
Interleaved with Buffy’s story are introductions to Moggach’s cast of characters, all of whom will eventually turn up in Wales. First up is Monica, who works for a company running corporate events. She’s feeling the strain of middle age, finding it takes longer and longer to assemble herself before going out in public. Having devoted her younger years to a dead-end relationship with a married man, she now wonders if she’ll ever have sex again.
Amy is a make-up artist. When she’s not building fake scars on the faces of famous actors, she is wondering what went wrong after three years with Neville. Was he too nice? Too effete? Why couldn’t she commit? Before she can find the answers, he’s off making babies with someone else.
Harold is writing a novel narrated in the voice of Mary Pickford’s cat (hmm, could that be a sly dig at Andrew O’Hagan’s novel, narrated by Marilyn Monroe’s dog?). It’s not going well. His wife, meanwhile, falls in love with an artistic Japanese woman. They depart for Amsterdam, and the local ladies move in on Harold, ostensibly to sort out his garden, but with all too obvious designs on his person.
And postman Andy marries a chubby, needy woman who surprises everyone by morphing into a successful and ruthless businesswoman, leaving him in the dust.
Meanwhile, back in Wales, Buffy discovers the B&B is a wreck, but he’s so overwhelmed by nostalgia – not to mention strapped for cash – that he decides to make the best of things, even if that means guests grumpily queuing for a turn in the bathroom. One day he has a brainwave: most married couples effectively divide the duties. After a split, there’s a knowledge gap. He launches a series of residential courses – in cooking, gardening, car repair – for divorced people. And lo and behold, Monica, Amy, Harold and Andy troop through, one after another, along with Buffy’s children and – surprise! – one of his ex wives.
Moggach leads her lively – and occasionally confusing – cast of characters on a merry mating dance, as everyone finds the heart-ease they’ve been missing. Really, though, this is all about facing up to the ageing process, and coming to terms with the changes, compromises, and legacies of a lifetime’s good and bad decisions. It’s a novel that’s not afraid of shining a light on a host of good reasons for getting undressed in the dark, and a wealth of other age-related indignities. Ultimately, she concludes, we’ll all have a lot more fun enjoying the time we have left, than worrying about the decay – and in that sense, Buffy’s convivial B&B is not only a gathering point, but a blatant symbol of the book’s central theme.
Like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which her publishers are comparing this too, Heartbreak Hotel is a sweet novel that dispenses its home truths gently and humorously. Best of all, Moggach devises a sly, utterly satisfactory ending. If only more authors understood that a novel isn’t finished just because you’ve typed “The End”.