The narrator of this silkily repugnant novel is 17-year-old Mari, who helps her shrewish widowed mother run a small seaside hotel in a Japanese resort town.
While out one day Mari runs into an older man she recognizes as a guest who was recently ejected from the hotel for causing a ruckus with a prostitute. Soft-spoken and attentive, he intrigues Mari. She accompanies him to his home, where he suddenly turns into the Marquis de Sade, subjecting her to elaborate sexual bondage and degradation. So emotionally isolated and affection-starved is the girl that she experiences this violation as an expression of love and hungrily goes back for more whenever she can break away from the hotel — which is surprisingly often, given her complaints of servitude.
As with all disturbing material, the question is whether the book offers sufficient offsetting virtues. From the perspective of a foreign culture at least, the answer is no. The characters are one-dimensional, if not completely opaque, and except for a few passing references, they seem utterly disconnected from any anchoring context of time or place. This narrative underdevelopment, disappointing from such a highly praised author, barely lifts “Hotel Iris” above the level of blatant pornography.
As a food writer for The New York Times, Kim Severson holds what has to be one of the most enviable jobs in journalism. But as she keeps reminding us in this unbuttoned memoir, her career was almost derailed at the start by drugs and booze until she swore off them completely.
She devotes a chapter apiece to eight women who taught her something about food and also about leading a life that matters. Some are culinary celebrities — Severson has made pals of Ruth Reichl and Rachael Ray — while other names will be known mainly to devout foodies. Each chapter concludes with a recipe, like the one for Alice Waters’s aioli, prepared in the author’s apartment kitchen by Waters herself, who diplomatically overlooked Severson’s stash of Diet Coke and chicken nuggets.
In terms of taste, Severson is an eclectic enthusiast rather than an aesthete, a democratizer of dining. Saving the reviewer the trouble, she freely admits to a “breezy, straight-ahead writing style” that can be “sloppy and sophomoric.” Lacking journalistic gravitas and culinary credentials, she wonders aloud whether she’s fit to follow in the footsteps of Mimi Sheraton and Craig Claiborne. Whether rhetorical or not, it’s a fair question.
Mary Beth Latham leads a seemingly idyllic life, happily nurturing her doctor husband and three busy teenage children while managing a landscape gardening business on the side. Only as we get to know her better do we notice some cracks in the finish. Son Max has grown sullen and withdrawn. Daughter Ruby, recovering from a bout of anorexia, is weathering a stormy romantic breakup. In rare moments alone with her husband, Mary Beth finds that she doesn’t have much to say to him. None of this prepares us for the horror that descends one night, as the novel accelerates from sitcom to tragedy in seconds flat.
Anna Quindlen locates drama not in the organic development of character but in the lightning bolt from a cloudless sky. The bolt that strikes midway through “Every Last One” is cataclysmic; it should annihilate the future, knock the planet out of its orbit. Mary Beth personifies the courage of the common woman in simply stumbling on.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in town, glimpsed only intermittently, another woman struck by the same catastrophe rages like a mad thing. What is her story, we wonder, and what kind of novel would it have made?
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.