Winning the Washington Prize for Fiction for your first novel shows incredible talent, of which, admittedly, author Victoria Alexander possesses a lion?s share. She is a seemingly brash and witty woman, not entirely unlike Smoking Hopes? heroine, Charlie Dean, who worked part-time as a stripper and a ?hostess? to collect material for her first novel. In many ways, while reading Hopes you can?t help but wonder where the boundary between autobiography and fiction lies.
The heroine of this story is a bleached blonde bombshell who’s had more body work done on her than Michael Jackson. From the nose, “sculpted into a work of art, minuscule, dainty,” to the collagen injections, the enhanced cheekbones and chin, the initial breast enlargement, the ribs that were removed to give her a “Barbie waist,” the additional breast enlargement, then the follow-up ? and, whew! There is a point where art becomes abomination, though it is oftentimes mistaken for extreme beauty, a barely discernible difference. The point is, the physical structure of the character is in direct antithesis to the plotting, scheming, articulate, and self-aware creature that we find in Charlie Dean. And this, if nothing else, is where the beauty of the story lies.
Charlie is an intelligent woman; an intellectual who enjoys Eliot and Joyce. She spends the majority of her days dreaming of an old lover named Gottlieb, and works at night as a ?hostess? in the Club Kiki, a Japanese hostess bar where the Mama-san works behind the scenes to see that her customers are not offered more than just a beautiful woman to dance with. Hopes is a brand of Japanese cigarette, and the air at Club Kiki is filled with their smoke, and hope of another kind. Prostitution is not allowed by the Mama-san, and neither Charlie or her compatriots dare cross their employer. But the good life beckons. The Japanese customers offer many of the women gifts of jewelry, vacations, apartments on Central Park West. Money is a powerful aphrodisiac, and eventually Charlie succumbs.
His name is (how phonetically fitting) Hiro. He?s a very wealthy man with extensive business in the States who is only too happy to throw large, expensive gifts in Charlie?s direction. In one instance she is severely sunburned while sunbathing at a beach hotel she has accompanied Hiro to and, when he asks if there is anything he can get her, she tells him yes: A bottle of Aloe Vera and an emerald ring. He returns, dutifully, with both items, never a word said. Throughout the beginning of their ? well, courtship, she regales in telling herself tales about how Hiro pines away for her, ever penitent, ever patient. At one point she even admits that she loves the man, albeit in a financial way. She charges him $500 the first night she has sex with him.
Charlie is a woman caught between two elements: the customers?, then Hiro?s expectations of the physical person she has become, and the romantic aspirations of a little girl lost. Her soulful moments of introspection are rare, most deal with the superfluous daily goings-on of her life and trade, but when they do come ? when Charlie dreams and sees herself sitting in the rooms of her past, waiting for her lover, Gottlieb ? they are explosive. Alexander’s ability to weave the thread of Charlie?s explorations of love and hope leave your breathless at times. This book quivers with a sense of the unspoken, while at the same time resonating with the clatter of needless conversation; that chatter that people who have nothing to say, say to avoid the silence.
All in all, it?s a wonderful read, and I recommend the book highly to anyone who’s been looking for something a little different than that offered on Border?s Selection-of-the-Week shelf.