Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Review: Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson

I love books about New York City, my new home. And after spending most of my life on stage, I love books about theatre as well. Combine these two with Maureen Johnson's flair for quirky characters and fun dialog and you have what may be the perfect book for me (just missing the end of the world theme that has been so common in my reading as of late!)

The Martin family has lived in and run the Hopewell Hotel since the 1920s. By now, it's certainly seen better days (some of which are detailed in the guide book excerpts sprinkled throughout the book) - by Scarlett's fifteenth birthday, all of the staff has been let go and while she's excited to be given responsibility over the prestigious Empire Suite (as every Martin takes over the housekeeping and guest maintenance duties for a specific room on the fifteenth birthday), the hotel now sits empty more often than it's full. Still, Scarlett is expected to spend the summer cleaning towels and manning the front desk while her friends have exciting adventures around the world.

Enter Amy Amberson, a former New York City starlet who has returned to the City to find her roots (or her voice, or release her chakras...she seems to have lots of reasons for returning!), and of course she wants to stay in the Empire Suite. A woman who knows what she wants (at least at the moment) and how to get it, Mrs. Amberson immediately conscripts Scarlett as her personal assistant for the summer, constantly sending Scarlett on errands for everything from books on how to write to ensuring Mrs. Amberson has an endless supply of organic tea.

But one new guest isn't going to save the hotel, and the Martin family faces crisis after crisis. Responsible older sister Lola suddenly finds herself jobless after spending too much time trying to keep up with her rich boyfriend. The oldest member of the Martin clan, Spencer, is at the end of a year off from school, so now he either has to find a paying acting gig or accept a scholarship to culinary school (hardly the life of his dreams!). A show comes up at the last minute - a parking garage-staged production of Hamlet - but when the show starts facing problems it's up to Scarlett and Mrs. Amberson to save the day. Scarlett not only has to balance her new job as Mrs. Amberson's gopher, but a budding, confusing, and knee-weakening romance with southern charmer Eric, one of Spencer's fellow cast members. And Marlene, the youngest Martin, is a childhood cancer survivor who needs to be the center of attention (unless it's Scarlett's attention - the two sisters have a tempestuous relationship).

Johnson has perfectly captured so much in this book, from the craziness of the theatre to the difficulties a family faces when one of its members has special needs. Marlene's portrayal - and Scarlett's reactions to her - was spot on.

One thing totally outside of the story that I found interesting on a personal level was Johnson's acknowledgments. Over the past year or two I've started paying more attention to the acknowledgments and author's notes - I used to only read them if they were in historical fiction and gave some insight into the historical accuracy or research of the novel. Now that I'm paying closer attention I'm finding more and more of my favorite books all reference the same group of authors - usually Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbelestier and Holly Black. It's just interesting to me how some of my favorite writers all seem to like each other as well!
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