Takes a little while to warm up, but pre-WWII Manila is gorgeous, and the intimacy between the main characters is exquisite.
First, let me point out that Jennifer Hallock [ T | F | W ] is the only romance author that I know of who writes historical romance set in the Philippines. So there’s that. The burden of shouldering the presentation of an unfamiliar historical setting is fraught: people who know the history will question your accuracy; people who don’t will absorb your depiction as fact.
As someone familiar with Philippine culture but only broadly acquainted with its period of American occupation, I get to do both: be critical of what is presented as true, while absorbing much of the historical narrative as more or less accurate. Hallock navigates this balance beautifully.
Hotel de Oriente, ‘the Waldorf Astoria of Manila’, is the meeting place for the American elite, the social climbers, and politicians with ambition. New to the city of Manila, Della Berget accompanies her grandfather, an American congressman for whom their trip to Manila will set the stage for his political ambitions:
“You think the guerrillas are finished? The war is won?”
Her grandfather smiled, ready for his moment. Della carefully watched his words.
“I ask you,” he said, “if I had any less faith in the future of peace, would I have brought my granddaughter here with me? Surely, if these islands are safe enough for a vulnerable woman like my Della here, they are safe for any American. Not only is she young and naive — the girl is deaf.”
Moss North manages the Hotel de Oriente. One of the first Americans to settle in the Philippines after having fought in the Spanish-American War, Moss is keen to prove his worth to the new owners of the Oriente, after the previous owners essentially looted the storeroom. It’s a thankless job that involves coddling the demanding Americans, controlling opportunistic locals, communicating with foreign workers, and finessing his way through kinks in the day-to-day running of the hotel and its restaurant.
Della and Moss don’t exactly get along at first glance. Moss is wary of spoiled Americans, whose superiority complex and social ambitions require a lot of finessing indeed from a hotel manager. Della, of course, isn’t like the other Americans. She’s determined to find independence, and Manila is her ticket to that dream.
Hotel Oriente starts off slowly in the romantic stakes, because Hallock has to set the scene for the story. Her descriptions of pre-WWII Manila is vivid and, for me, almost unbearably sad. Despite American and Spanish colonialism, and the stark difference in the social standing of the locals versus the foreigners, Manila in this time period was a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. And it’s a bittersweet thing to know what befalls the city just a few decades later.
Hallock skates the racial tensions of the time with delicacy. My gut feeling is that the portrayal of the class system is fairly accurate, but with enough artistic licence to ensure that the main characters exhibit modern values when it comes to racial tolerance. Moss, in particular, toes this line to the edge — the hotel staff consisting mostly of local and foreign workers — but nothing that I couldn’t overlook. YMMV.
The strength of this book, aside from the lyricism with which it describes Manila in what was arguably its heyday, is the intimacy between Della and Moss. At RWA last month, Dr Jodi McAlister spoke about communication as an essential component of the romance narrative, and a way in which gender politics are enacted in the text.
Hero listening to heroine and taking her seriously is essential to the romance. << Me: Interesting, but… 1/2 #RWAus16
— Kat (@BookThingo) August 20, 2016
Because Della is deaf, it’s even more important that Moss listens to her, and this requires him to pay attention. Della can speak, but that’s not where their deepest communication happens — it’s in Moss’s touch and consideration, and the way he understands, by listening and paying attention, exactly what it is that Della wants and needs.
She reached up and touched his face. “Look at me,” she said. “Listen.”
He moved his head into her hand, and she caressed his cheek. He closed his eyes and relaxed into her care. “I am listening, sweetheart, even if my eyes are closed.”
She did not understand how he could trust his ears that much, but she talked to his closed eyes, as he wished.
And later, Moss tells her: “I should have believed your eyes, Della, more than my ears.”
The romance plays out exactly as Jodi described. Their initial acquaintance, where neither has much time for the other, leads to misunderstandings.
Della did not trust happy people. … He did not exactly smile in response, but his attitude was so frustratingly good-natured that she felt sorry for the man. He could not be very bright.
But later, when they’re in love, communication without intimacy — via telegrams — leads to even more misunderstandings, because they can’t properly interpret each other’s meaning without that context, and their emotions get tangled up in the messages. The banter between Della and Moss is filled with understated humour that was a delight to read.
The love scenes in this novella are detailed, but the level of eroticism is perfect for the characters. I’m not sure I believe that it’s possible to have sex in a hotel filled with people without being overheard, but that’s never stopped me in other romance novels, so I didn’t let it bother me here. Hallock also emphasises the sense of smell, which is not something often done in romance, but absolutely fits Della’s character. The scene where she tastes Moss’s lips after he goes down on her is sexy and yet so poignant. And this:
Della imagined what it would be like to sleep — really sleep — with him. Did he snore? She hoped so. It seemed a waste for her to fall for a quiet sleeper.
Hotel Oriente is a novella-length prequel to Hallock’s Sugar Sun series (the first book of which I reviewed here). As with most shorter romances, the story suffers from speeding through the external plot at various places. That I wanted Hallock to linger in the story more, however, is a sign of my enjoyment rather than a criticism of the form.
I think I got a little lost between the descriptions of Manila and the development of the romance. Della’s character is so vivid that I was just focused on her for most of the book, and because the external plot mostly involves Moss, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was A Big Issue. I also would have preferred one less contrivance to keep the couple apart. The final plot twist that separates Della and Moss feels rushed, as does the resolution.
Content advisory: Not a Regency. But that’s a good thing.