Desert Isle Keeper
The Chelsea Girls
New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel has been the scene of a lot of scandals, triumphs, joys and heartbreak over the years. Hazel Ripley and Maxine Mead are just two of the women who’ve passed through its iconic red brick façade, and they have problems bigger than the ghosts haunting the hotel’s walls to contend with.
They met in Italy as USO performers during World War II – Hazel an eternal understudy an aspiring playwright, Maxine a starlet wannabe who left her traditional family behind for dreams of a stage life. They develop a deep and true friendship as the tour goes on, bonded over saving a young German who has been named a conspirator by the Italians – and his eventual murder.
After the War, Hazel’s lucky break blooms thanks to a connection made while staying at the Chelsea. Doors fly open for her thanks to the magic of the hotel’s social atmosphere; her first play Wartime Sonata, becomes a huge hit, with Maxine transformed into an overnight sensation as the play’s lead. Both women fall into relationships – Maxine with the married, abusive Arthur, Hazel with Charlie, a handsome boy from their wartime past.
But at the height of McCarthyism, it’s hard to put forth anything that might translate to seeming commie-sympathetic – which is an easy way to end up on the blacklist. Maxine and Arthur have ties to the Party – ties that helped pluck Maxine from obscurity, and ties that might run even deeper than that. Hazel meets with harsh scrutiny as they are soon as the play goes into production, and, as their burgeoning careers balloon, their worlds – as well as their lives – may be in danger.
Lisa Fernandes and Shannon Dyer read The Chelsea Girls and are here to share their thoughts on the novel.
Lisa: Well, I loved this one!
Shannon: Me too! It’s definitely one of my top reads of 2019!
Lisa: I’m glad to hear it! Did you have any familiarity with the Red Scare and McCarthyism before reading the book? I had some knowledge of the era due to researching Lucille Ball’s life.
Shannon: I read a bit about it in college history classes, but I didn’t know much beyond the basics.
Lisa: The book definitely does an extremely good job in humanizing the nightmare – sort of like a feminist Trumbo. Have you read any of Ms. Davis’ other books? I admit this one is my first.
Shannon: I’ve read and adored all three of her previous books. The Dollhouse is my personal favorite, but this one is a close second. I hope you plan to check out her other books. I think you’d enjoy them.
Lisa: Someday I will! Hazel was my favorite character in this one, without a doubt – she reminded me of Judy Garland on several levels.
Shannon: You know, I didn’t get a Garland vibe from Hazel, but I loved her as a heroine. She had some insecurities, mostly due to her mother’s inability to say anything the least bit kind to her, but she didn’t let them hold her back. She discovered her calling and went after it!
Lisa: I think it might’ve been her determination – and the abusive stage mom that evoked those similarities. Maxine seems to be a more feisty go-get-‘em type at first, but at core she’s weaker, softer, and much more self-sacrificing.
Shannon: Maxine was harder for me to embrace than Hazel was. Her exterior was tougher for sure, but I agree she was a much weaker person on the whole. I didn’t find her self-sacrificing as much as I found her selfish. Still, she was the perfect foil for Hazel.
Lisa: I think the book was kind of shooting for a self-sacrificing feeling with Maxine, especially when it came to her final choice at the end of the book, but yep – she was a walking example that getting and having it all is a hollow thing when you lose your dignity. It helped to explain the strength of their bond and the pyrrhic sacrifice that Maxine makes for Hazel. A little communication would’ve helped everyone, but alas! On another topic – oof, the men these girls get tangled up with! I adored Charlie though.
Shannon: Charlie was fantastic! At first, I wondered if he was going to be super weak-willed, but he didn’t turn out to be that way at all.
Shannon: Speaking of the men, I was completely flabbergasted to discover what drew Maxine and Arthur together. I just wasn’t expecting that at all.
Lisa: That was an unexpected twist. I knew there had to be a deeper reason and a deeper purpose that bound them together, because Arthur was simply awful to Maxine; and even though Maxine was a fairly guilty, weak person I knew intimidation couldn’t have been the only reason why they became involved. Davis had a way of making The Chelsea feel very modern and exciting, and then very run-down and dissolute – a good way of making the hotel feel real and like a breathing character all its own. It reminded me of the Eloise books, and her point of view on the Plaza.
Shannon: I’m not all that familiar with The Plaza, but this way of breathing life into a historic building is one of Ms. Davis’ trademarks. I come away from her writing with a much deeper knowledge about the locations she writes about, and the Chelsea Hotel is no exception.
Lisa: The book includes short, act-prefacing chapters featuring the ghosts of the Chelsea. Did you know where these chapters were leading before they revealed their reasoning? I loved the spooky atmosphere they left behind.
Shannon: I had a glimmer of an idea where those chapters were leading, but I ended up being wrong about most of it. I fell in love with those chapters though. I think they added an extra layer of mystery to the story, and mystery is something I’m almost always in favor of.
Lisa: What’s your final grade? I’m going with an A – a gorgeous novel, written perfectly, a tragedy with purpose that entertains while educating about the pain of the blacklist.
Shannon: It gets a solid A from me, too. The writing is phenomenal, and I was completely sucked into the plot. There were so many plot lines at work here, and Ms. Davis managed to weave them into a stunning tale of love, intrigue, and friendship.