REVIEW: Hotel of Secrets by Diana Biller
Content notes: Domestic violence
Dear Diana Biller,
Set in Vienna in 1877, Hotel of Secrets is something of a departure from your previous two novels. For one thing, there are no ghosts or supernatural elements in this book (unless one counts a family legend about “the man“).
Maria Wallner is the manager of the Hotel Wallner, an establishment which has been run by 4 generations of Wallner women, each of whom, having met “the man” have had one daughter. After significant financial setbacks due to political and financial unrest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not at all aided by the poor management of Maria’s mother, Elisabeth, Maria took over the running of the hotel and she’s been working hard to try and bring it back to its former glory. I enjoyed the unique location and the time period. Neither seem to feature much in historical romance I’ve read and it’s nice to explore something different.
Eli Whittaker is an American who works for the Treasury Department. After a big case draws to a close, he is sent to Vienna to investigate the theft of some codes from the United States Legation. It’s not strictly the purview of the Treasury Department but Eli is a loyal and dedicated man and so, reluctantly, he boards ship and travels to Vienna.
Eli likes order and calm. In Vienna he finds chaos. It makes him uncomfortable. People waltz everywhere and there are parties which go on well past the early hours of the morning. He is disapproving of the Legation staff who don’t arrive at work until nearly lunchtime and don’t seem very dedicated to their work when they are in the office. What he finds when he commences his investigation doesn’t change his views.
Maria, like Vienna, represents chaos to Eli. When they first meet, he saves her from being struck down by a rogue carriage. It is far from the first time he saves her life.
Over time, Eli finds more links between the Hotel Wallner, the attempts on Maria’s life and his own investigation.
Meanwhile, Maria has an opportunity to put the hotel back on the map so to speak. It’s going to take ingenuity and more money than she has (but less than it would appear) but she’s determined to make it work. The hotel is Maria’s passion and she’s fiercely determined.
I liked Eli very much but struggled somewhat with the Wallner side of things. I liked Maria too but when it came to the Wallners generally there was far more melodrama and farce to the story. Elisabeth and her married lover, Heinrich, (Maria’s father) were a little too much Gomez-and-Morticia when it came to PDAs. When it came to Eli, for the most part, the tone of the novel changed entirely. I found it a little difficult to pin down the overall style the book was going for. Perhaps it was intended to match the chaos of Vienna?
I did enjoy how over the course of the book Eli opened up to Maria and to a bigger, more open life. I was saddened by his violent and traumatic backstory (involving his father).
I must say that being gored by a wild boar even now would be a difficult thing from which to recover and I can’t imagine that it was easier in 1877. Eli seemed to shrug off injuries a bit too easily.
There were parts of Eli’s story which didn’t really seem to go anywhere. I had questions about how things were going to work and what exactly were Eli’s plans by the end of the book. I wanted to know how he was going to clean up those loose ends in America. I wanted to know what the outcome was regarding his findings within the Legation.
I did love how Eli was excessively competent. He was studious and learned things well and quickly. This applied fairly universally for Eli – from waltzing to flower-arranging and more. Eli lacked sexual experience but Maria did not suffer for it if you get my drift.
While Elisabeth and Heinrich mostly irritated me, I enjoyed Maria’s best friend (and the hotel’s chef) Hannah, and Maria’s half-brother, Macario. Maria’s grandmother, Josephine was formidable and evidence that “the man” legend wasn’t quite the whole story when it comes to Wallner women.
It’s rare to read a historical romance where the female lead has sexual experience. Maria’s attitude to sex is very modern. She’s had multiple sexual partners and enjoys casual sex. Until she meets Eli that is – then emotions join the physical attraction and things get a lot more complicated for her.
Eli finds himself rescuing Maria from certain death on multiple occasions. Usually I love a rescue. It’s my catnip. But….
It took me a month to read Hotel of Secrets. The reading experience of this book was, for me, unlike The Widow of Rose House or The Brightest Star in Paris. Yet, when I was actually reading, I didn’t hate the book either. It’s just that I found it very easy to walk away from and very easy to make the choice to do something else instead of read. While there was plenty to like about Hotel of Secrets, it didn’t work anywhere near as well for me as your earlier two books (and even your novella A Christmas Spark which was entirely delightful). I didn’t enjoy the melodramatic and/or farcical aspects of the book as much. I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly what didn’t quite work for me – because something didn’t. It’s very unlike me to take so long to read a book. I can’t put it down to a reading slump – I’m not in one. Books I read immediately before and immediately after Hotel of Secrets did not take me a long time to read.
I really feel like I should have liked this book more than I did. The elements are all there for it to succeed. But something about it – maybe the way it was put together? – didn’t quite gel for me. I discussed this review with my son because I was struggling with what to write. He suggested that it was like a dinner where everything on the plate was something I liked to eat but somehow the combination of the food together didn’t taste quite right. It seemed to fit so I’m adopting it.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kaetrin.
I appreciate your son’s input, too!
The cover artwork looks lush.
@LML: I like the contrast of the sort of star spangled dress and the golden light.
@Kareni: I was complaining to him about how I was struggling to articulate my thoughts. I wrote this review three times! LOL
@LML: @Jayne: It’s a lovely cover.