St. Martin’s Press 2023
Nicola Hansen’s historical fiction, “Hotel Laguna,” set in 1945, highlights the creation of the “Pageant of the Masters” in southern California where well-known artworks are recreated live, with people in costumes. The pageant is part of the Festival of the Arts, which continues today and draws crowds to Laguna Beach.
This book’s allure is not the narrative, but the story behind the birth of the pageant …
Narrator Hazel Francis is the author’s foil to relate the history of this unique art colony. During the war, Francis, from Kansas, was a “Rosie the Riveter” and worked on “Bombers, SBD Dauntless” at the Douglas Airfield in California. When told to go home to her husband and family after the war, Francis felt afloat. It was all gone: “the teamwork, the friendships, the mission, it was all over so abruptly.” Her parents were dead, and her fiancée died in combat shortly after she sent him a “Dear John Letter.” Going back to Kansas was not an option so she heads to Laguna Beach where she finds a job as an artist “assistant,” that requires her to pose nude. Desperate for work, she accepts the position, with a famous artist named Hanson Radcliff.
Throughout the narrative Francis is wrong headed often speaking to herself and justifying her ill-conceived actions which made it impossible to return to Kansas. She has no savings so she sleeps in the back room of the bar in the Laguna Hotel until she gets her first paycheck.
From local folklore, she pieces together that Radcliff had been questioned by police about the suicide death of a movie star. Determined to learn his secret, she acknowledges it is wrong for her to be “…snooping around, entering places I wasn’t supposed to be, interfering,” but she does it anyway, causing havoc in the community and in Radcliff’s life.
This book’s allure is not the narrative, but the story behind the birth of the pageant, and how with the use of lighting and makeup, eyes can be tricked into believing they can see a two-dimensional image. The main character is annoying, but it’s interesting how women who gained skills during the war were not prepared to return home. As Francis says, “…now that I had the taste of it, I wanted more.”