Clare, the protagonist of The Third Hotel, is a recent widow grappling with the sudden death of her husband, Richard. Killed in a hit-and-run, Richard, a film studies professor specializing in horror, has been dead for just over a month when Clare travels to Cuba to attend a film festival Richard had wanted to go to. Clare herself is a sales rep for an elevator company; her job requires her to travel often, and we learn, through flashbacks, that Clare and Richard’s marriage was not one of intimacy and warmth but rather of distance and separation.
Clare is a very complex character who tells us right at the beginning of the novel that she is “experiencing a dislocation of reality” and “not who you think I am.” Her reliability as a narrator, then, is questionable from page one, a deliberate authorial choice so that we truly question Clare’s reliability and tether to reality when, in Havana, she sees Richard, wearing a white linen suit, standing in front of the Museum of the Revolution. Is she hallucinating him? So overwhelmed by grief that she’s conjuring visions? Is it a ghost? Is she living in an alternate reality? Her seeming psychological instability has us questioning her actions and thoughts throughout the novel: Who is she? And what is wrong with her? Is she losing her mind? Is she the dead one? Are we living in her “dislocated reality,” too?
Clare often spirals into meditations about grief, which help us see a bigger portrait of her as a person. These inner musings are helpful, as Clare often seems to be rather “blank” or “empty,” a shell of a person rather than an active agent in charge of her own life. Clare is observant and perceptive and smart, and as she contemplates her marriage and her own selfhood within that marriage, we begin to piece the fragments together to understand not only Clare’s psyche but perhaps our own, as well. Clare’s marriage had secrets, and there is also a large secret she has with her father about which we, the readers, are deliberately kept in the dark. As we descend into the “horror film” that is playing out in Clare’s own mind, we see a portrayal of grief, selfhood, relationships, childhood, travel, and authenticity. Perhaps this passage from the novel best encapsulates Clare’s journey:
Behind every death lay a set of questions. To move on was to agree to not disturb these questions, to let them settle with the body under the earth. Yet some questions so thoroughly dismantled the terms of your own life, turning away was gravitationally impossible. So she would not be moving on. She would keep disturbing and disturbing. She imagined herself standing over a grave with a shovel and hacking away at the soil.
Clare is a character whose life has been “thoroughly dismantled” and so will “keep disturbing” in order to arrive at a fuller understanding of who she is.
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