Book Review: The Bellman by Heidi Barnes

The Bellman - Heidi Barnes (Vireo Rare Bird Books, 2016)

The Bellman – Heidi Barnes (Vireo Rare Bird Books, 2016)

So many questions are raised by this story of a young man – Stanley – who sets out from his small town and takes the first job offered to him.

Why does he only go the next (also small) town? Why does he expect finding work to be so easy? Why is this story even set in 1983 when it makes absolutely no difference to the plot or setting? Why would a cheerful, pretty waitress be interested in Stan when he never even has a conversation with her? And, most importantly, why is Stan such a jerk?

Fun fact: when I was 18 (the same age as our protagonist) I also worked in a hotel of sorts. I cleaned rooms for a summer between terms at university. While the place I worked at wasn’t nearly as fancy as Stan’s Bar Harbour hotel, I can sympathize with the hard work, the sometimes eccentric guests, and the fact of doing a job that others might look down on. But I could not sympathize with Stan.

The story is told from his first person perspective so we are in Stan’s mind as meets guests and co-workers and as he describes them to us. He is often cruel in his descriptions and for no reason. One co-worker’s appearance is criticized mentally by Stan every time he sees her even though she’s never been anything but decent to him. He is apparently offended that woman he deems unattractive might dare to be in public and have some self-confidence. Similarly, Stan has a crush on a waitress in the hotel restaurant who he never takes the time to get to know. He seethes with jealousy when other men look at her but never makes a move to interact with her as anything more than an object of desire.

The story seems like it would be about a young man who strikes out on his own and works his way up in the world, with a few comical pitfalls along the way, And I think that’s what the novel wants to be but it never seemed that Stan got very good at his job. Or even that he put much effort into it. The funny anecdotes are mostly the same old hotel stories we’ve heard and read before. People have affairs, the chef is French and grumpy. The novel tries to have some depth by including two surprising deaths but lacks the strength to carry it off and so they only feel awkward and out of place. The best thing I can say about this book is that it was short.

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