It's a November weekend in 1987, and the down-at-heel Bellweather resort hotel in the Catskills is hosting its annual music convention for New York's high school talent. Twins Rabbit (Bertram really, but everybody calls him Rabbit––and that does seem like a slight improvement over Bertram, doesn't it?) and Alice Hatmaker from tiny Ruby Falls will be there, Alice for the second time.
Alice is a singer, featured in all of her high school's musical theater performances, and absolutely convinced she is destined for stardom. Rabbit is a much more low-key character. He's a bassoonist in the orchestra and hasn't managed yet to gin up the courage to tell anyone--even Alice--that he's gay.
Minnie Graves is an outsider to the conventioneers, but not to the Bellweather. Exactly 15 years earlier, when she was a girl, she witnessed an event outside Room 712 that has haunted her ever since, and that she hopes to exorcise this anniversary weekend. Harold Hastings, longtime Bellweather concierge, has been a witness to years of music competitions--and the mystery of Room 712.
Some actually are describing this book as Glee + The Shining, and I can see that, but there is more––and less––to it than that. It doesn't live up the horror potential it presents in its opening, but it does combine a young adult coming-of-age story with an amateur detective story, adding in some romance, magical realism, and some horror/suspense, all done in breezy, entertaining prose.
Racculia is one of those writers who can paint you a character portrait in just a few words, and make you feel you almost can see right into the character's soul. She directs this large cast of characters like the most skilled conductor, weaving their themes together, sometimes in harmony and sometimes clashing. Every character is a bit of a misfit, but her writing is filled with understanding and sympathy for them. (Well, maybe not Viola, but everybody else.)
I don't usually like to quote at length from a book, but there is one passage that will give you a vivid idea of the Viola and Minnie characters, and Kate Racculia's writing style.
The boy gets off at five and a woman gets on. No––a coiled, terrifying creature in woman's clothing. She is tall, though she's getting the bulk of her height from horrifying-looking red pumps that make Minnie's arches ache in sympathy. Her hair is white and pulled back in a murderously tight ponytail. As soon as she's inside, she stabs the L and then the Close Door button and casts a glance at Minnie that might as well be a shiv jerked between her ribs.
'Gotta move faster than that, honey,' this insane woman says.
It takes Minnie a moment to understand the woman thought Minnie meant to get off at five with the boy. Logical; not many people go joyriding in the elevator. Still, Minnie resents it. She knows she looks like an unremarkable cupcake. Fluffy, pale, round as a moon pie. But what Minnie resents most is this horrible woman's assumption (some would say reasonable) that if you are fat––and Minnie is fat, not overweight, not chubby, she is solid with fat––you are someone who Cannot Help Herself. Someone Who Will Defer. Someone Who Is Weak.
When the fat, in fact, is one of the few parts of Minnie that make her strong.
'Lady,' she says, and pushes the emergency stop button. The elevator jiggles to a halt. 'Do you have a problem with me?'
'Who wouldn't,' the woman says, her eyes glimmering. 'Now be a good girl and release the elevator, so I can get back to my life and you can get back to your collection of limited-edition Beanie Babies.'
Minnie stares at the woman but doesn't speak. She steps close and pushes her belly into her like a sumo wrestler. Minnie moves with surprising speed and the woman, caught off guard, wobbles on those ridiculous heels. She tries to steady herself by placing a hand on Minnie's arm.
Minnie removes the woman's hand from her arm and twists her wrist backward with a sound like a fistful of uncooked spaghetti snapping in half. The woman makes a cartoon noise––Auck!––and slams against the mirrored wall to her right. She slides down to the floor, holding her wounded wrist to her stomach, and Minnie smiles.
None of this happens in real life, of course. But Minnie imagines it so vividly she finds it hard to believe actually doing it would be any more satisfying.
Note: Thanks to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Amazon's Vine program, for providing an advance reviewing copy. Bellweather Rhapsody was published on May 13, 2014. Versions of this review appear on Amazon, goodreads, and BookLikes and may appear on other sites under my usernames there.