The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman

I know that Alice Hoffman has received much praise which makes me wonder why I have not read her, especially as she is favoured by Oprah and this endorsement often attracts me to a book. I even have books of hers on my bookshelf which have so far languished, never having reached the heady heights of being chosen.

The Third Angel, then, is my first foray into the world of Alice Hoffman. This book is divided into three parts which all deal with different characters and different events in separate time periods but are linked by both place, motifs and people.

The first part is about Allie and her sister, Maddy set in 1999 and entitled “The Heron’s Wife”. Allie is about to be married to Paul and Maddy is her maid of honour, travelling to the wedding from New York to London. Maddy is staying in the Lion Park Hotel, close to the Brompton Road, a dilapidated hotel with the vestiges of a bygone era contained in its decor. But the trappings of the past are also brought to the forefront every night by a haunting that takes place at room 707.

The sisters have a troubled relationship and this is made more so by Maddy’s behaviour prior to the wedding and the circumstances in which Allie finds herself marrying Paul. There is also the issue of “The Heron’s Wife”, a story which the girls were told by their mother as children and which Maddy feels Allie has acquired for herself in creating its retelling for her book, which has become a bestseller.

Sibling tensions abound as well as secrets, hurt and mourning.

The second part, “Lion Park” set in 1966, deals with Frieda, a maid at the hotel in which Maddy stays in 1999. Frieda is a young woman, wanting to spread her wings and explore life a little, rebelling against her father’s wishes to become a doctor like him as a punishment for his leaving her and her mother. As she was close to her father, she views this abandonment as a betrayal but also as a chance to shake off parental expectations and live a life less ordinary and more parental disapproval.

While she is working at the hotel, she has her eyes opened to many activities that she would previously have been sheltered from, from prostitution to hard drug use but it also allows her to grow. Frieda’s main ambition is to become a poet and when she meets Jamie, an aspiring star who has been talent spotted but just needs to find his voice, writing his own songs and carving a niche in a world which is highly competitive, Frieda is also inspired.

Jamie is already involved with someone, Stella, a wealthy privileged young woman who Jamie loves whilst he also has a connection with Frieda. It is his relationship with Stella that will lead to his undoing.

Again, the haunting of room 707 figures in this story, the shouting that comes every night at the same time being heard by Frieda and providing inspiration for her writing.

The final section, “The Rules of Love’ set in 1952, again at the Lion Park Hotel, deals with the story of Lucy Green, who is staying there with her stepmother, Charlotte and father, Ben. They have come from America for a wedding: Charlotte’s sister, Bryn is marrying a man called Teddy after having previously been involved with a less than reputable con man and trickster called Michael Macklin. There is tension between Charlotte and Lucy, and Lucy is of an age, 12, where she is maturing and capable, much to Charlotte’s irritation.

When a charming man talks to Lucy in the lobby of the hotel, it heralds Lucy’s involvement in helping two estranged lovers and she becomes integral to their potential happiness. However, as always, this will be at the expense of someone else’s.

I have to say that I was a little hesitant starting this book: I found it difficult to get into the first section, Hoffman’s prose seeming to stutter to me and I felt like the characters were underdeveloped, their actions and their dialogue feeling false, contrived and short.

However, I am glad I persevered as I enjoyed Frieda’s and Lucy’s stories a lot more. They were more atmospheric, the characters were better crafted and the narratives had a better flow to them. As all of the sections are linked by various ways, as mentioned, I enjoyed the way that things that Hoffman weaves into one story shed light on something in another, this happening throughout the narrative. It was subtle, like a light powdering of fairy dust and I like writers who are able to do this without it being clumsy and obvious. This was also true of the revealing of the ghost’s story, the echoes of which permeate all the stories and which is masterfully revealed in the final section.

And the reference to the third angel? Well, it’s the angel that you meet which is neither Guardian nor Death but provides you with something that you may not have felt you needed and may not be aware that you are receiving by your encounter with that angel but it will save you or change you all the same. It may be something that you feel is difficult to experience but is actually a gift. I liked this idea, that situations with people may feel like they are taking from you in terms of pain, grief, endurance, emotional turmoil when actually they are giving you strength, memories, love, resilience, emotional recognition.

One last thing to mention in this book is mothers and fathers and their importance as role models in the life of young girls. This may seem a rather obvious statement but all of these stories have girls who have lost a parent whether through illness or leaving, this being true of fathers in two of the stories and there is a sense that this has affected the characters a great deal in the way that they view the world and live their lives. If the girls do have parents, not all of them are caring or supportive. I think that it must be something that resonates with Hoffman greatly, to include this scrutiny of the role of parents so thoroughly in her book.

I was unenthusiastic at first, it is true and I did wonder if reading Alice Hoffman was going to be a waste of valuable reading time, a real chore but ultimately, I was satisfied with the route the book took and also the way that it ended; I liked the otherworldliness of it and the implied connectedness that certain people feel instinctively from others.

If these traits are the hallmarks of Hoffman’s fiction, then I may have to pick up those languishing books after all.

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