by Bridget Maguire
Robert Olen Butler takes readers on an intimate journey into the French Quarter of New Orleans in his novel, A Small Hotel (2011). On the day Kelly is supposed to be finalizing her divorce, she goes back to the place she first met her husband Michael. While grappling with the failure of her marriage, Kelly reminisces about times spent with Michael in New Orleans. Since Kelly and Michael are both outsiders to New Orleans, it is not surprising that many of their memories feature notable tourist attractions of the French Quarter. However, the promised experiences of such places appear to reflect and fulfill a deeper satisfaction Kelly hoped would extend into her relationship with Michael. At the same time, Michael’s memories, often of the same events, help him uncover his past emotional failings towards Kelly and allow him the opportunity to “right his wrongs.”
Kelly reminisces about her marriage while staying in The Olivier House Hotel (Point 1 on map). Although Michael was first staying in the hotel before he met Kelly, they have continually came back to the same Room 303 ever since they spent their first night together there after meeting during Mardi Gras more than twenty years ago. Focal points in the French Quarter act as memory triggers throughout Kelly’s flashbacks. The hotel itself embodies a token promised satisfaction for its guests. A page titled “Distinctively New Orleans” on the hotel’s website provides the following description, “The scene of many Creole society soirees, banquets and gatherings, this mansion has provided warm and gracious hospitality for over a century and a half. Steeped in history, architectural details, and character, the Olivier House exudes a warm, casually elegant atmosphere.” These features evoke a kind of nostalgia for a traditional southern, New Orleans upper-class society. The attendees of such “society soirees” would most likely be notable, well-to-do married couples of the New Orleans elite. This ideal image of a couple is what Kelly always hoped her marriage to Michael would reflect.
Both Kelly and Michael vividly remember the morning of Ash Wednesday, the day after their first night spent together. Although certain conversations and actions are engrained in each of their minds a bit differently, the places they went to are consistent. Early in the morning, Kelly had gone to Saint Louis Cathedral (Point 3 on map) to receive the ashen sign of the cross on her forehead, a symbol of penance. Although she claimed not to be particularly Catholic, this church is the oldest cathedral in the United States and a famous landmark of the French Quarter. The lavish architecture and ornate interior décor reinforce the cathedral as utterly beautiful and sacred. This sense of perfection embodies Kelly’s feelings about Michael after their first meeting and what she hoped would continue between them in the future.
Later that morning, Kelly and Michael walk through Jackson Square (Point 4 on map), stopping at Saint Louis Cathedral. They proceed to “sit nursing the New Orleans chicory-root coffee under the open-air pavilion of the Café du Monde” (Butler 64), while eating beignets. This café (Point 5 on map) is famous for its coffee and beignets and one of the city’s greatest tourist attractions. That Kelly And Michael choose to go to Café du Monde suggests their desire to experience the best in New Orleans, despite the café’s known crowds and popularity. While Kelly struggles with eating her beignet, sending clouds of powdered sugar astray, she shares a tender moment with Michael:
He puts the tip of his forefinger into the powdered sugar at the margin of his plate, and he lifts his finger, coated white, and he reaches out, across the table, and he touches Kelly’s forehead, touches the dark cross of ashes, and he traces a white cross of sugar there. And he says, “In remembrance of life. And to a thing not ended.” (Butler 66)
His mark on Kelly’s forehead as a sign of life rather than mortality speaks to the vitality he feels in his relationship with her. This moment of pristine intimacy in Kelly’s mind mirrors the perfection of a guest’s experience drinking coffee and eating a beignet at the Café du Monde.
Later in the novel, Kelly takes a walk through the French Quarter after stopping at a bar for a drink. She walks around Jackson Square, once again taking in the familiar places and is flooded with the memories accompanying them. After she climbs the façade of Washington Artillery Park (Point 6 on map), she stands along the waterside esplanade of the Moonwalk (Point 7 on map). Both places are icons of the French Quarter and New Orleans Mississippi riverfront. A tourist expects to find sweeping, “postcard-like” views here. However, Kelly cannot take in much of the scenery due to it being nighttime when she walks here. Looking at the river through the darkness, “The past runs strongly in her, carrying her feelings about her husband, about her marriage, about her life” (Butler 120). The scenic, memorable experience one would expect to have walking along the Moonwalk is overshadowed by the night’s darkness and feelings of failure Kelly currently holds. The memory Kelly has here is of her failed attempt to connect with her father on a day she spent with her family on the banks of a river in Alabama when she was five years old, ultimately shedding some light on her problems with Michael.
The famous landmarks Kelly revisits throughout the novel speak to feelings of satisfaction, happiness, and joy that, in the weeks leading up to her divorce, have appeared to vanish. From The Olivier House Hotel to the Café du Monde, Kelly and Michael simultaneously share memories of times of perfection during their relationship. Revisiting these places in the present allows Kelly to remember these times and analyze the expectations she simultaneously had for Michael and their relationship together. However, her efforts are not in vain, as Michael mentally revisits the same places during his stay at the Oak Alley Plantation with his current girlfriend and ultimately realizes the mistake both he and Kelly would be making to finalize a divorce. During a time of reflection and attempt to unveil the reasons for the failure of her marriage, Kelly’s memories of the various French Quarter locations include satisfied tourist expectations that translated into her moments of happiness and bliss with Michael. On the other hand, Michael’s memories of times spent with Kelly in these places allow him to see in what respects he failed her, how much he truly loves her, and inspire him to completely satisfy Kelly’s emotional expectations of him in reviving their marriage to its full potential.
1. Custom Google Map, 2013.
2. Custom Google Map, 2013.
3. Room 301, 2013, TripAdvisor, http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/03/52/fc/95/olivier-house.jpg
4. St. Louis Cathedral/New Orleans, 2010, Flickr, http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3400/4620455155_e5d4cd1992_z.jpg
5. Evening at Café du Monde, Brad Thompson, http://www.visitsoutherncomfort.com/images/dEvening%20at%20Cafe%20du%20Monde.jpg
Butler, Robert Olen. A Small Hotel. New York: Grove, 2011. Print.
“Distinctively New Orleans.” The Olivier House Hotel. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2013. <http://olivierhousehotel.com/distinctive.html?sound=1&btnMuteXmc=_level0%2EbtnMuteX01&s=%5Bobject+Object%5D>.
“The Saint Louis Cathedral: New Orleans Louisiana.” The Saint Louis Cathedral: New Orleans Louisiana. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2013. <http://www.stlouiscathedral.org/>.