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Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies [NOOK Book]


Charlotte Heath, a lively, independent redhead of humble beginnings, is married to the scion of the powerful Heath family. When, on her first outing after a long illness, she spies her husband, Hays, bending to kiss another woman in the village square, impulsive Charlotte heads her horses straight out of town. Upon arriving at The Beechmont Hotel, Charlotte makes a shocking discovery: The classy Beechmont is a rather unique institution where a different kind of hospitality awaits the all-female clientele. ...
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Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies

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Charlotte Heath, a lively, independent redhead of humble beginnings, is married to the scion of the powerful Heath family. When, on her first outing after a long illness, she spies her husband, Hays, bending to kiss another woman in the village square, impulsive Charlotte heads her horses straight out of town. Upon arriving at The Beechmont Hotel, Charlotte makes a shocking discovery: The classy Beechmont is a rather unique institution where a different kind of hospitality awaits the all-female clientele. Seductive and high-spirited, A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies is an unforgettable novel of one woman’s journey to self-enlightenment.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Playing out in Boston during the freezing winter of 1900, Cooney's sixth novel (after Gun Ball Hill) has a steamy premise-a proper young lady winds up at a hotel where female guests are visited at night by handsome young men-but an emotionally distant execution keeps titillation to a minimum. Charlotte Heath, married to the youngest son of an immensely wealthy family, has spent her wedded life living with the clan in their imposing ancestral home. After a debilitating illness of unknown origin keeps her bedridden for almost a year, Charlotte finally leaves her room, only to find her husband on the cusp of an embrace with another woman. Without a second thought, she quits her life entirely and seeks out her only friend, the Heaths' former cook, who works in Boston at "The Beechmont: A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies." It takes a while for Charlotte to realize what's going on at the hotel, where a whole cast of quirky characters hold court-including a handsome young stud who ultimately breaks Charlotte's heart. The narrative moves dreamlike through a web of Charlotte's musings during her unlikely adventure. Cooney's story compels, but continual flashbacks and reminiscences make the narrative feel bumpy and disjointed. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The intriguing title of Cooney's (Gun Ball Hill) sixth novel suggests a brooding period piece; the promising plot, set in 1900s Boston, reinforces that suggestion. After three miscarriages and a long convalescence, invalid Charlotte Heath ventures from her husband's family mansion only to catch him kissing another woman. Shocked and dismayed, she dashes off to a hotel in the big city, not knowing that the Beechmont is actually a male brothel for privileged women. While the setting is ripe for torrid sex scenes, there is scarcely a one-not even an ellipsis followed by a dimming of the lights. Charlotte herself is a frustrating character, dull yet dizzy. Cooney does not clearly lay out her character's transition from a na ve, repressed housewife to a woman capable of independent thought. The plot meanders through Charlotte's silly musings and gets bogged down in many spots by interminable, clunky similes. In short, this novel squanders its potential with murky writing. Not recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/05.-Ed.]-Christine Perkins, Burlington P.L., WA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A fable of female empowerment and liberation is concealed-like a frail virgin's body under heavy layers of clothing-within the melodramatics of Cooney's sixth novel (Gun Ball Hill, 2004, etc.). Set in New England in 1900, it's the story of Charlotte Heath, a putative orphan who has married into an oppressively prosperous Massachusetts family, "failed" in health (polio is suspected) and as a potential breeder, and been shocked to discover her husband in the embrace of another woman. Befriended by a family of outcast bakers (falsely accused of poisoning their neighbors), Charlotte flees to Boston and the Beechmont, the eponymous domicile where "gentle ladies" receive more than the usual considerations from the stunningly handsome young men who seem to be employed there. Among the flamboyant characters Charlotte meets, and with whom she becomes variously involved, are the Beechmont's unctuous owner Harry Alcorn and his morphine-addicted wife Lucy, diminutive medical student (and surprisingly potent amorist) Arthur Pym, a wheelchair-bound lady painter, a "factory boy" turned police detective, assorted overworked and underprivileged cooks and maids and housekeepers, a truculent woman doctor (Charlotte's aunt by marriage) and famed cookbook author Fannie Farmer (who has a keen eye for a likely-looking lad). Cooney exhibits a sure grasp of period detail, and a knack for concocting suitable Dickensian grotesqueries, as Charlotte masters her illness, overcomes fears "that the desires of her body were things to be ashamed of," investigates the possibility that her orphanhood is a myth and prepares to settle the hash of her smugly patriarchal and patronizing husband. Though the Gothic effects arefun, the novel's structure is chaotic. Cooney repeatedly departs from present action into extended flashbacks without making clear transitions-and an entire sequence in which Charlotte returns to the town where she grew up seems to come out of nowhere. A fitfully engaging book that ought to have been a much better one.
From the Publisher
“A sharp-eyed novel of erotic awakening circa 1900. . . . Cool comfort from a writer with style and heart.” —O, The Oprah Magazine"An upbeat, even old-fashioned story about personal growth, telling us we can’t know where we are until we remember where we’ve been." —Boston Magazine “Charlotte Heath is the most enticing heroine I’ve met in some time: tenderhearted yet obstinate, genteel yet deeply sensual. The adventure she takes us on is wonderfully eccentric, deliciously observed, and ends with the kind of gratifying surprise that reminds me why telling stories, and reading them, is such an essential pleasure in my life.” —Julia Glass, author of Three Junes"Full of earthy characters and situations you hate to leave. . . . A delightful and intriguing read."  —Historical Novels Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307279743
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/23/2007
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 393,229
  • File size: 432 KB

Meet the Author

Ellen Cooney is the author of five previous novels, most recently Gun Ball Hill, a story rooted in the unrest in the American Colonies just before the Revolutionary War. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, Story, and The New England Review, among many other publications. She has taught creative writing at MIT, Boston College, and Harvard University. She lives in Phippsburg, Maine.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Read an Excerpt


Charlotte Heath was in such a hurry to get to her husband, it took her a while to notice the absence of her bells. If they were there, she would not have seen her husband at the edge of their town's big square, under an elm tree, bending his head toward a young, pretty woman, to kiss her.

It was midafternoon. No one else was out. No one else was watching. Except for Charlotte, her horses, her husband, and the woman, the roads around the square were deserted. All the houses were shuttered against the cold.

If it weren't for the absence of bells . . .

She'd imagine it like a song: If it weren't for the bells, the lack of the bells, if it weren't for the lack of the jingle of bells . . .

Her sleigh in the snow down Mulberry Street should not have been silent. It should have announced itself, as sleighs are supposed to, in a chimey, wild jangle, which the horses would add to with snorting and horsey whistles, just to make noise. They disliked snow. They missed hearing the rhythm of carriage wheels on uncovered roads, and their own, steady clip-clopping.

If he'd had some warning--and he would have recognized her right away, by the bells--her husband could have thought of good excuses. He could have passed himself off as a man who'd offered his arm to a solitary woman, in a social-decorum sort of way, as if they were headed for a stroll across the park, and never mind that the walkways weren't clear. The big square did not resemble a town green so much as a white, high-banked, North Pole tundra, with whirls of snow blowing everywhere. Hard white sunlight was in the trees, in every branch, like an extra layer of ice.

Who was the woman? Charlotte didn't know.

The snow in the road was deeply packed. The blades of the sleigh ran as smoothly as a child's fast sled. There was a basic unnaturalness about soundless, gliding runners, Charlotte felt, even though she'd grown up in the East and loved winter.

It was the middle of February, 1900. She was supposed to feel glad and optimistic about this new century. It didn't seem enough to be astonished to keep finding herself still alive.

Her husband turned away from the woman in plenty of time for the kiss not to actually happen. You had to know him to know he was saying (with a look, no words), "This is something we have to postpone."

Charlotte remembered that sometime last summer the cook's girl and boy had taken her bells from the stable for some game of theirs in the kitchen. They had not put them back, which was typical of them. Except for Charlotte and the cook, Mrs. Petty, the feeling in the household about those children was this: they were like two red squirrels who'd burrowed in through the walls, and very much needed to be removed.

They were gone now, having moved with their mother into Boston. Charlotte loved them. She'd been sick. She owed them, in a way, her life.

Her horses were fond of the bells. There were many more than she needed, in many sizes. Some were as small as buttons; some were as large as fists. She was always collecting sleigh bells. She was encouraged by the Heaths to be musical. She had not learned an instrument as a child. She did badly at learning piano, worse at violin, worse still at other strings, and worst of all at woodwinds. She was told she lacked a feel for scales and notes and could barely distinguish a key. She had no patience.

Maybe the horses knew what lay ahead before she did. They were unusually quiet. After the turn onto Mulberry Street, they slowed down a lot more than they had to.

Their town, south of Boston, was settled in the earliest of colonial times. It was a Puritan-prosperous place: big homes, good manners, modern conveniences, gentility, professions, sacred inheritances, nothing out of place. Her husband loved their home like a box he happily fit into. But he was always prepared to burst out of it. Charlotte never traveled with him on business trips.

It was the home he grew up in. It was enormous; it was the only one on the street. A Heath had taken it over in 1820 from a man who'd made a fortune as a sea merchant and who then, having become religious as a result of a near-shipwreck, envisioned the place as a self-sustained college for the training of missionaries, which had not happened.

The house was elegant and austere, with so many added-on wings and hidden rooms you could wander around for hours without sight of another person. Two of her husband's sisters lived there with their husbands, and his two unmarried sisters, and two of his brothers and their wives. And Charlotte's father-in-law. Charlotte's mother-in-law.

A dozen of them. One of her.

The various Heath children--six of them who had parents in the household--lived at their schools now; two were old enough to have established their own homes. Charlotte's husband was the baby of his family.

It never occurred to him to live anywhere else, not even at their summer place--on the coast, in Cape Ann, in the village of Squab Cove--where Charlotte always longed to be, no matter the season. He didn't care for the sea. He tolerated it one weekend a month in the summer because that was what was expected of him. He disliked dampness.

Just now, he was involved in arranging money for the switching of a factory in Ohio. He had been called home unexpectedly for the death of one of his uncles. Had he brought the woman with him?

He did a great deal of work in the Midwest and felt a personal relationship, something like love, with the train he rode to get out there: he'd arranged the money for a part of the track to be laid. That particular factory was in the process of changing from the making of kitchen and parlor stoves to the making of bicycles.

Everyone needed stoves, but everyone wanted new bicycles. That was where the money really was. Her husband didn't ride one himself (as far as she knew), but he'd offered to get her one so she could ride in the lanes at some future point, like his sisters and sisters-in-law. The future point meant, "if someday you're well." There was always an "if." They had thought she'd never get well.

If he brought home a bicycle for her, she'd let it sit in the yard and rust. Or give it to the maids. There was only one kind of riding she was interested in.

She'd given the horses their heads on the way across town; her ears were still ringing with rushing, icy air. Her heart had barely started beating again in its usual way, from that wonderful fisting-up that seized her inside the chest like a good, big hand, then let go.

She wasn't reckless. She knew her way around speed. Before she was sick, people were always telling her husband to make her stop going so fast, and he would say, "Charlotte, you must change the way you carry yourself, you have got to slow down," and she would answer that he was right, they all were right, and then she'd go at a ladylike canter out of town, to gallop through the woods and fields and old logging roads, where no one saw her but God.

No bells. Only a silence.

Her husband and the woman must have just left the house she was heading to. It belonged to her husband's uncle: the man who'd died. A Heath uncle, Owen, of the lawyer branch of the family.

It had happened the morning before; he was eighty. In his house, a high, handsome mansard full of marble and gleaming wood and French furniture, they were holding his wake.

The branch of the family her husband belonged to was the finance branch. "Our Mr. Heath owns money and he arranges things" was how Mrs. Petty explained him to her children. He liked that. "He owns things himself and when other people want to get things, or manufacture things, they give him money and he arranges it."

Charlotte saw the way the woman let go of her husband's arm. Slowly, reluctantly. Confidently. It was the same way people stopped talking about personal things when a servant came into the room.

She pulled back the reins and the two horses stopped. She knew it looked wasteful of her to have brought out the pair for such a light sleigh, but they hated being apart. They were young, handsome chestnuts, high-headed, proud of themselves, healthy. It had been a long time since she'd been out with them and they kept letting her know their joy to have her back, even though they'd never been separated from her completely: someone from the stable had brought them to her window every day when she was sick.

Her husband took off his hat--a stiff, dark one. A mourning hat. He brushed his hand along the crown, as if a load of snow had settled on it, weighing down on him. But there wasn't any snow; he was procrastinating. He took a long time to put it back on, and he did so with an awkwardness that didn't suit him. He was amazed to see his wife and her horses and sleigh, coming upon him silently. He wasn't in the habit of being stolen up on.

John Hayward Heath. Hays, he was called.

Funny he should speak to the woman first and not to her. But at least he didn't whisper.

"Why, here is Charlotte and her horses." The woman didn't know who Charlotte was--or pretended she didn't. Hays said, "My wife."

The woman wore a fur coat--dark mink--and a matching hat, and stylish leather boot shoes, very narrow and pointed. In spite of the coat, you could tell her corset was steel-lined. Steel-lined corsets had a particular look. The coat had a tightly gathered waist. It was belted, with the ends in a perfect knot, exactly in her middle, pulled tightly.

Charlotte hadn't worn a corset for a long time. She lost a lot of weight when she was sick; she didn't need one. But she'd made up her mind never to put one on again. You don't get up from a sickbed and find that you are the same person you were before. It maddened her to think of herself as a weakling.

Why, here is Charlotte and her horses. Charlotte and her horses. That sounded like a song, too.

She saw the way her husband looked at the woman.

He was soft in the face. She knew that look: serious, naked, with a longing that sooner or later would be satisfied. He had that. He was someone who knew that whatever his longings were, he wouldn't walk away from them unsatisfied.

Until this moment, she had believed that there were only two things to cause that expression: desire for her, in the days before she was sick, and babies, especially when someone showed him a new one, or even mentioned one.

She had no idea how much it was required of her to keep saying she was sorry not to have had a child by now. She knew from other women she should never stop trying, she should not give up hope; she should think of three misses as a rehearsal, or dues you must pay, as if bearing full-term was something she'd eventually get right, something she would have earned. She'd developed the talent, at her time of the month, to never pay attention to the sight of her own blood. She avoided wearing clothes of any red shade.

At the summer place there was a female cat maintained by one of the maids. It was not allowed outdoors because Charlotte's father-in-law, in retirement, was studying birds. There were feeders all over the yards, birdhouses in the trees, particular flowers and shrubs to attract certain types. Cats in this system were murderers.

The summer-place cat must have felt it was in solitary confinement. All the maids felt sorry for it; then one day a fisherman brought over a scrawny orange kitten. The cat took the kitten by the neck and walked away with it to a dark corner--either to destroy it or to adopt it. Charlotte happened to be there. She was always turning up in kitchens.

This was the first time in her life she understood what it was like to be shot through her body with pure, stinging, burning envy. The cat came proudly and boastfully back into the light to show off its baby, as if saying to the humans, "I don't recall giving birth, but I suppose I must have done so, and now I am very pleased." Charlotte watched the cat lick every part of the kitten, but after that, until the kitten was grown, she stayed away from that part of the house.

The woman with her husband wasn't maternal-looking. She wore her hat at an angle, very stylishly, in spite of the fact of the wake.

Hays and the woman stepped away from each other. They did a good job. They could have been strangers. They looked as if they were used to being parted when they didn't want to be parted.

There was no guilty look on her husband's face when he realized his wife was in the middle of Mulberry Street.

She wasn't supposed to be out. He looked amazed, but he didn't look guilty. Charlotte thought, "He doesn't think he'd be doing something not all right in kissing her." He looked like what he was doing was right.

"I was on my way to look at your uncle," called out Charlotte, as if he had asked her. She'd expected to surprise him at the wake: the only husband among all those relatives without a wife at his side, not counting the widowers. He was the Heath whose wife was always absent. She'd thought he minded that. He wasn't particularly fond of Uncle Owen, but that wouldn't have kept him from playing a part he knew well: a man who's doing what he should. A man who gets things right.

A man who gets things.

Heaths took mourning--and all ceremonies--seriously. Uncle Owen had lived much longer than anyone thought he would, and for that alone, Charlotte admired him.

His heart had stopped while he dozed in front of his fire, exactly the way he had wanted to die. He was a competent lawyer, and he was rich, and neither overly greedy nor overly hoardful, which was true of all Heaths. He never denied himself brandy, butter-rich foods, sweets. He was gout-ridden, heart-weak, blood-torpid, and as fat as the Falstaff of Shakespeare, whom in fact he had played.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What does the first scene convey about Charlotte’s personality? How does her reaction to seeing Hays with another woman capture both her spirit and her insecurities? What does it reveal about Hays and his attitude toward Charlotte?

2. Even before her illness Charlotte is isolated from the Heath family. What factors play a role in their general disapproval of her? In what ways does Charlotte confirm their assumptions about her? Is her unacceptable behavior inadvertent, the result of naiveté and a lack of proper training, or does she intentionally provoke the family’s disapproval?

3. Would their marriage have taken a different course had Charlotte and Hays established a home of their own? Do the politics and social standards of the time, as well as Hays’s regard for his family’s wealth and position, make it impossible for him to conceive of a different, more egalitarian relationship? What part does Charlotte’s inability to have children play in the unraveling of their marriage?

4. Discuss Charlotte’s relationships with the other people in the Heath household. With whom does she feel most comfortable and why? How do her interactions with the men and the women in the family differ? What does this reflect not only about the dynamics of the well-to-do Heaths, but also about family life and the roles assumed by—or assigned to—men and women, masters and servants, during the period?

5. Is Charlotte’s flight an impulsive, irrational act? What light do her recollections of her life with Hays and her response to his admonitions shed on her mood and state of mind?

6. Charlotte says she married Hays “because saying no to him would have been like saying no to your own heart” [p. 41]. What qualities make him appealing not only to Charlotte but to the reader as well? What do the secrets he hides from the family (for example, his interest in poetry, p. 77) show about his character and beliefs? What originally attracted Hays to Charlotte?

7. On one level, the Beechmont is a refuge for Charlotte and the other guests. What else does it symbolize? How do the descriptions of Charlotte’s arrival [p. 46] and her reactions to Harry Alcorn, Lily Heath, and the handsome young man in her room [pp. 50–52] signal a change in Charlotte’s reality? Discuss the relationship between Charlotte’s sojourn at the hotel—including the people she meets—and the novel’s earlier references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland [pp. 17–18]. What other fantasies, fairy tales, and literary works does the novel evoke, either implicitly or explicitly? How do these references deepen the meaning and impact of the story?

8. How would you characterize the tone and intention of Hays’s letter to Charlotte [pp. 92–93]? Why does Charlotte destroy it without a moment’s hesitation?

9. What does the hotel offer Aunt Lily and Berenice Singleton? What particular needs does it satisfy for each of them? Why, despite Lily’s good marriage and professional achievements and Berenice’s artistic talent, have they found it necessary to establish lives hidden from the everyday world of Boston? What does the portrait of Mrs. Alcorn
[pp. 171–173] contribute to the themes Cooney explores?

10. What effect does social status and family background have on the options available to the various women in the novel? Which female characters are most successful at overcoming the obstacles society has placed in their way?

11. What does Charlotte learn about herself at the hotel? How do Arthur, Mr. Alcorn, and Dickie, each in his own way, open her eyes to aspects of her personality she had previously suppressed or dismissed? What role do her sexual encounters with Arthur play in Charlotte’s metamorphosis?

12. “Why should someone’s life seem obvious and plain, and fully surfaced, like an enormous boulder in the middle of a flat, empty field, visible for miles, when it was so much closer to the truth that—if one’s life were like a giant rock—three-fourths of the rock, maybe more, would have to be underneath, invisibly connected to cores of things, for good reason?” [p. 198]. What does this quotation convey about Charlotte’s understanding of society and the demands it makes on individuals? In what ways does it illuminate how Charlotte has changed or matured during her stay at the hotel?

13. Why does Charlotte decide to search for her parents? Why does she decide not to see them when she learns where they are? How does Hays affect her decision?

14. Does the novel end happily? What do you think will happen to Charlotte and Hays in the future?

15. A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies is set against the background of a cold, snowy New England winter. How is the weather a metaphor for the events the novel depicts? How does it reinforce the emotional world of the characters?

16. A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies is reminiscent of many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novels of manners. Discuss the qualities it shares with novels set at the same historical moment. Does the author’s point of view and sensibilities differ from that of writers of the period? Does Cooney, for example, bring a contemporary attitude or bias to her descriptions of events and characters?

17. To what extent is Charlotte’s story a product of her time and situation? What parallels are there between Charlotte’s life and the lives of women in novels set in this century? Has the feminist movement and the acceptance of female sexuality and desire fundamentally changed the relationships between the sexes? Do class, social position, and economic opportunities still play a role in what women aspire to or in what they are able to achieve in both their public and private lives?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2011

    Great story

    This is a wonderful story of a women who was told to be weak and found the strength to become her own women.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2010

    Woud recommend to friends. Already have.

    I really liked the book. It is suprising to see others didn't.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2008


    I loved the story but it left me curios as to what will happend to her and if she recovered from her sickness? would their be a sequal to this story since the ending was unresolved,,'to me'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2006

    A Hotel to Avoid

    To escape from a home filled with wealthy in-laws who scorn her, Charlotte seeks refuge in a Boston Hotel. Cooney describes both the home she leaves, and the hotel in detail. . . tho Charlotte herself is fuzzily drawn.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2006

    Shallow and boring

    Shallow characters. Boring dialogue. Charlotte is a 30ish adolescent. Very disappointing.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    astute historical character study

    She thought she was Cinderella when she married the son of a wealthy family. However, Charlotte hates where she lives, her husband¿s family mansion where his relatives are everywhere criticizing everything she does. Already in disfavor with her in-laws for not producing the next generation, Charlotte becomes so ill she is unable to leave her room for almost a year. When she finally leaves, she finds her husband enjoying the pleasures of a woman. --- Unhappy and disappointed in his betrayal, Charlotte has no place to go in puritanical 1900 Massachusetts except to see former family cook Mrs. Petty, who now works in Boston¿s Beechmont, A PRIVATE HOTEL FOR GENTLE LADIES. With no options, Charlotte stays there. Eventually she realizes that this is no hotel or shelter for single women, but a place where males of all ages and shapes visit the female guests to pleasure them. However she wonders if she can be one of them as she reflects on her childhood and with her husband and his family. --- Ellen Cooney paints an astute historical character study driven by Charlotte who breaks out of her web as she becomes aware that her past, her in-laws, a betrayal, and her illness (polio) does not prevent her from becoming a desirable woman. The story line looks deep into the present and past of Charlotte, enabling the audience to understand how the child makes the adult especially her inhibitions and doubts however these passages also abruptly occur disjointing the otherwise keen story line somewhat. Still readers will find A PRIVATE HOTEL FOR GENTLE WOMEN an appealing discerning period piece. --- Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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