I feel like only Lyndsay Faye could not only make me actually sit through reading a story about the mafia, but enjoy it. (Thankfully, the mafia portions are really only about 1/3 of the novel.) I just, I really hate stories about organized crime. I don’t know why.
Really, this story isn’t about the mafia. It’s about Alice “Nobody” James, who is on the run from the mafia, yes, but is taken in by the residents of the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon when a porter on her cross country train recognizes that she is seriously wounded and brings her to the doctor who owns the hotel. The other thing about this hotel is that it is entirely owned and populated by Black people, which would have been a big deal in any city, but especially so in Portland, the Whitest City in America, in the early 1920s. I am not from Portland, so I had no idea about its history, but I don’t think I’m alone in this. Apparently, Oregon was just super racist but didn’t want to admit it, and made it a law that Black people weren’t allowed to live there (a law that stayed on the books well into the twentieth century), but, no really, they weren’t racist! They just didn’t want trouble that came with all that racial tension! Just better to keep out the cause, right? Ugh. (Yeah, sure, guys, and the KKK is really just a charitable organization.)
Alice inserts herself pretty successfully into life at the hotel, making friends, and sussing out intrigue. When a little boy who lives at the hotel goes missing on the heels of vandalism and threats from the cops and the KKK, some of the intrigue in the hotel and surrounding it takes on a new flavor. This is also taking place during Prohibition, and post WWI, so those are both significant concerns for the characters.
I really ended up loving all the characters in this one, though I liked the flashback sections set in NY less than I liked the present day setting in Oregon. This might have been a five star read if Alice’s backstory had been more to my personal tastes. I will admit, though, the novel wouldn’t have been the same without it. Alice is an interesting POV character because she is constantly, consciously, remaking herself into someone new to fit whatever situations she’s in, and the result is that she herself is never quite sure who she really is. It also could have been disastrous having the lone white female character be some sort of white savior for the rest of the characters, who are mostly Black. But it doesn’t work out like that, and I came away from the book feeling like Faye had nothing but respect and love for her characters, even the ones with questionable morality.
Definitely recommend this one.