The Electric Hotel

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 04 Jun 2019

Member Reviews

Dominic Smith’s “The Electric Hotel” is both melancholy and romantic, a tinged story of the never-ending search for redemption, either from the ghosts we see as our years pass or from ourselves and the decisions we make.

All the while, it is in the art in the background that watches and waits for its next dreamer and brokenhearted to start the process all over again that continue the cycle – and in this expansive novel this is what we see in main character Claude Ballard whose journey leads him to unexpected places; as a filmmaker and documentarian it is he who sees that those who are in charge of documenting the world are in tune with it more acutely – and whether that is a good or bad thing.

This novel is for the movie lovers, those who sit in the dark and trust their viewing to a director who has complete control. The same goes with novels. These kinds of pursuits require a delicate contract with the presenter and consumer and if all goes right the end product connects its intended message to the receiver of it. This novel explores that process. It delves also into the making of film from pre-production, to demanding stars, to creating a vision that you hope hits, to the words of a script itself.

Now in his later years, Claude is being interviewed by Sid, a film-history student who is fascinated by his work in the beginning of cinema – starting first as a young apprentice, working to support his ill sister, to his part of the Cinema Fraternity taking him to Australia and the US, his torrid relationship with star Sabine Montrose, their family life, his fights over the right to film with ruthless patent holder Thomas Edison, his capture by German soldiers in WWII, and then finally to his film that changed everything that was thought lost.

It’s well-written, anyone who has read Smith’s previous work “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos” will know that’s expected, and is approachable. The technical aspects of film are approached as informative and fascinating while giving film followers an extra nod and the storyline moves fluidly with a bigger focus on the past while bringing everything home to the present in the last few pages after being interspersed throughout.

I found the relationship between Claude and Sabine fascinating as the two navigate a professional relationship that lends to one of a unique marriage and family arrangement, and ultimately how the two end up. The insight into Sabine as an actress is spot-on and an interesting look at method acting while still letting the reader wonder just who Sabine really is and what drives her.

Fans of historical fiction and arts and entertainment will have no problem finding a new novel to read here.

Smith handles life and death situations with empathy and truth and make certain scenes that much more effective and solid.

It’s a tale of Hollywood without the sign. It’s a tale of art and love and the lives of those who dared.

Thank you to Sarah Chrichton Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and NetGalley for early access to this title due June 4th.
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I adored this book.  It tells a story of a group of colleagues who worked together in the early days of motion pictures.  They lived through a time of enormous changes, and survived into an era where their lives and accomplishments were considered almost ancient history.

From the Hollywood of the sixties back to the Palisades of New Jersey at the turn of the century and forward again to the trenches of the World War in Belgium, Dominic Smith frames his story in the life span of Claude Ballard, an early cinematographer.  

Martin, Claude and Sabine, Hal and Chip, Leo and Cora, are all beautifully rendered characters and I was enormously sorry to come to the end of the book and the end of some of their lives.

I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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When I ask a man what he's reading, usually the answer is "history."  I know this sounds sexist, but men gravitate more in that direction and feel a deeper interest in history, and Dominic Smith is a prime example.  His works are evidence of dedicated research, and his books bring the past to light  that gives his tales contemporary  immediacy whether they're set the 17th century Amsterdam of Sara deVos or here in The Electric Hotel, set in the early cinematic days of the Lumiere Brothers and in turn of the century New York.  Although these are the only two books of his that I have read, it seems that many of his novels concern the creative process, whether it's painting, daguerreotypes, and in this case, the moving image.  His characters both factual and representative, inhabit the pages, making for an exciting, immersive read.  When his focus shifts to the German invasion of Belgium during WWI, I was reminded of the magnificent War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, another example of fine writing that also included elements of the creative process.  

As a professor of creative writing, Smith's book contains some truly beautiful passages:  ("Edison might have showed up late to the motion picture party, but now he was swaggering through a crowded house like vaudville's hooligan younger brother." "He'd carried want for so long that he wasn't prepared for loss."  "Despite its hold on the city, the war now felt like an abstraction..., a series of parabolas and probabilities.")  There were several lines that made me smile, such as "For God's sake, I just chased you through a labyrinth.  Do you also need a violinist?"   And, finally, one quote that sums up the enduring effect of the past which may be the theme of many of his works:  "...the past never stops banging at the doors of the present.  We pack it into tattered suitcases, lock it into rusting metal trunks beneath our beds, press it between yellowed pages of newsprint, but it hangs over us at night like a poisonous cloud, seeps into our shirt collars and bedclothes."
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Dominic Smith has written a fascinating account of the early days of film, borrowing his title from that of a recently rediscovered and restored silent film from 1908. Through his main character, French photographer Claude Ballard, he recalls Claude's early life making very short moving image strips for the Lumiere brothers, travelling around the world showing these to packed theatres. Popular strips were one of a falling cat, a stuntman on fire diving into the sea at a Sydney beach and later a beautiful actress, Sabine Montrose, taking a bath. Now an elderly resident of a shabby Hollywood hotel with a roomful of canisters containing ancient decaying silent films, he tells his story to a young student of film, in particular his life long love for Sabine and what happened to his lost cinematographic masterpiece 'The Electric Hotel'.

The author has clearly carried out extensive research into silent films and I really enjoyed learning about the detail about the techniques and people involved in the early days of silent film, however some may find this slows down the narrative and be impatient for the plot to unfold. Rest assured that the plot will become consuming once all the main characters are in place and the filming of the 'Electric Hotel' is underway. And this is not the only highlight of the novel as Claude goes on to film and produce propaganda films in WWI.

Overall I found this a very rewarding read - I learnt a lot about silent films and how urgent it is to restore those that are left before they succumb to 'vinegar syndrome', I gained a new perspective into the filming of WWI and I enjoyed the story of Claude's life and his turbulent love for the somewhat cold but beautiful Sabine Montrose.
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The Silent Era of film has always attracted me. I love stories set around the myriad innovations that were needed to create the movies that we know now—though I also pity the people who got left behind and were forgotten. Dominic Smith shows us both of these sides of the story in The Electric Hotel through the biography of a fictional director, Claude Ballard. When we meet him in 1962, at the open of the novel, he lives in a Hollywood hotel that has become the home to other silent film relics. The arrival of a film student sends Claude back down memory lane, to the days when he first started working for the legendary Lumière brothers.

The bulk of The Electric Hotel spans the late 1890s to the end of World War I. After seeing some of the short reels created by the Lumières, Claude knew that he had to make films. Something about the medium let him create beautiful, truthful things. By the turn of the twentieth century, Claude was working with his own little outfit of a budding producer, a stuntman, and an actress who wants nothing more than to be a perfectly natural actor. (As I read her dialogue, I remembered a story I once heard about Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier when they were making Marathon Man. Hoffman asked a question about how Olivier prepared to play a Nazi; Hoffman was a method actor. Olivier replied, “My dear boy, it’s called acting.”) While Claude and the others are interested in creating illusions, Sabine Montrose wants to make something real. Curiously, Claude’s quest for imaginative films makes him more human than Sabine’s for realistic acting.

Claude falls in love with Sabine, but I didn’t find this relationship nearly as interesting as everything that was going on with film. Claude’s desperate love for Sabine is only one of the major conflicts in the story. The other comes from Thomas Edison, whose rapacious legal battles over patents squelched the nascent film industry in New Jersey so much that a lot of filmmakers and actors fled to Hollywood so that they could create without being threatened with a lawsuit. After Claude and Co., create what will be Claude’s masterpiece, the eponymous The Electric Hotel, they get slapped with a menacing legal letter from Edison’s lawyer that sends them back to the drawing board when they suddenly can’t release it. Have you ever wanted to reach through a book and time to punch a historical figure because they’re being a complete jerk?

In addition to musing on early film history, the novel touches on the double-edged sword of fame; the loss of film history to fires, vinegar syndrome, and other calamities; and perhaps the hope that time really can heal wounds. The arrival of the film student at Claude’s hotel/retirement home is a catalyst for restoration. This student talks Claude into letting him have the director’s stock of film that he has been keeping (hoarding) for decades so that they can be preserved before they’re lost forever. (It’s estimated that most early film has been irretrievably lost, though discoveries are occasionally made.) It’s deeply satisfying to see Claude, his film, and his own history redeemed, even if it seems like there are more lows than highs in his life. This book also makes me hope that there are other film students and historians out there looking for history before it completely disappears.
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This is an amazing book, one that will give you food for thought and make you travel through history.
I was hooked since the first pages and I found this book both enthralling and entertaining.
I loved the poetic and powerful style of writing as much as I liked the fleshed out characters.
It's one of those book you think you'll read again.
I look forward to reading other books by this author.
Highly recommended!
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine.
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Really loved this book. So well written—literary for sure but moving, interesting, and not full of itself.  I loved the subject matter—the very early days of silent films in Europe and the United States—told in a flashback from 1962.  The historical sequences, particularly the scenes of movie filming and production during World War I and right before in Ft. Lee New Jersey(where movies were made before they moved west to Hollywood) are moving and striking in their capture of what “it must have been like.”  Also, an entertaining and melancholy love story, I highly recommend this book.
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I could not stop reading Dominic Smith's new novel The Electric Hotel. I was transported back in time to the heady early days of film, disturbed by a trek into the horrors of WWI, and enthralled by the vivid characters and their stories, especially the tragic story of unrequited love.

Claude Ballard's cutting-edge, notorious 1910 film The Electric Hotel had impelled audience to high emotion. It was his highest achievement, but it came crashing down when Thomas Edison sued his company for copyright infringement--as he did all his competition, seeking a monopoly on the film industry. 

Claude has not seen a movie since 1920 when in 1962 a grad student in filmography seeks him out. He realizes he has been "pickling" himself for thirty years, holed up in a hotel filled with other aging film industry has-beens, his hoard of film decaying from vinegar syndrome.

"He'd witnessed and photographed the passing of a golden, burnished epoch." from The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith

As Claude answers Martin's questions and shares his hoard of decaying canisters of film, he revisits his early life and ascent from a French farmer's son who in 1895 was mesmerized by the early Lumiere films, how he became a noted movie maker, then while bravely filming WWI he was taken by the German army, always haunted by the film actress who broke his heart.

"When I dream of that old life I see it like a strip of burning celluloid. It smokes and curls in the air, but it's impossible to hold between my fingers." from The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith

Sabine Montrose had beauty but no heart. She arrived in Paris as a teenager and fled when men pursued her. She learned to act and to use men but never would give her heart. Claude became one of her victims when the older woman took him into her bed for one night only. Claude was caught in her web, filmed her and made her an international star, forever hoping that Sabine would allow him into her life once again.

"Loving a woman was like that...was chasing smoke." from The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith

The son of a failed nickelodeon owner, Hal was the theater owner who ran Claude's films; the small, spunky boy Chip was the burning man in a circus act when he joined the company as a stuntman. Sabine's mysterious mentor Pavel was always at her side.

The mystery of what happened pulled me along like a magnet, but I cherished every sentence of the gorgeous writing and would not skip a line. 

Smith was impressed by the quality and art of the early movies he viewed during his research. What treasures have been lost? The Electric Hotel is an actual 1908 film recently rediscovered. I viewed it online here. A couple take a room in a hotel in which stop-action animated luggage takes itself up the elevator and unpacks itself. Brushes clean the traveler's boots. I can imagine the impact on audiences over 100 years ago!

I received an egalley from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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Dazzlingly vivid, richly detailed, and enthralling ambitious, Dominic Dominic Smith once again parts the curtains on an historical moment, peoples it with wonderfully nuanced characters and invests it with a vibrant heartbeat. A novel which ranks with his best.
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I requested this title after reading and enjoying the author's previous, The Last Painting of Sara De Vos.  The Electric Hotel takes place in the 1950's but with the primary action taking place in the 1920's in memory.  The plot was a bit slow starting, but once it took off, I was completely captured by the story.  Meticulously researched and presented, there were many coloquilisms related to the silent film industry and the time that were charming and interesting.  The writing feels like it could use a stronger copyediting hand, but overall a pick.
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This one gets two stars for the interesting start but my interest just wasn't maintained.
It's the story of the early film industry, and one man's involvement in it. The story is told as he speaks to a student about his life.
I thought the opening was interesting, especially the idea of several geniuses of the golden age of silent film growing old and senile in a hotel in L:A. I found the topic of the story to be interesting, especially the scenes involving people seeing moving film for the first time. But the language becomes flowery and over the top and it became laughable.
This book just wasn't for me.
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I didn't enjoy The Electric Hotel like I thought I would. I like historical fiction, but I have no interest in the history of film or the main character. I read some and skimmed through some. Overall, this story didn't intrest me enough to really care what happened. Thanks to NetGalley for an arc in exchange for an honest review.
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I've been trying to read this for the past 2 weeks, but just can't make myself read any more of it.  

Made it to page 66 and gave up.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. My thanks (and apologies) to the author, the publisher and NetGalley.
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The title?   Didn’t think it sounded too promising, you know; but I was wrong, so very, very wrong; and it was my good fortune to meet an elderly French gentleman, Claude Ballard, living out his life in a rundown Hollywood hotel.  This is not the electric hotel of the title, but it is the same hotel where, according to this novel, D.W. Griffith died.  Turns out, Mr. Ballard has a history in silent film that predates Griffith, and we go back in time to learn about the earliest days and the simplest of films, moving figures in a stream of light.   Here is a man who films his own sister’s death from tuberculosis as he tries to understand and promote this new medium.  Meet Sabine Montrose, a bold-going stage actress who transitions to film and then into exile after starring in a doomed masterpiece.  And Chip Spalding, teenage Australian daredevil, forerunner of all Hollywood stuntmen to come.  Hal Bender from Brooklyn, where he stays a step ahead of trouble eking out a living with nickel peepshows, to studio head where he struggles to stay………...

Unforgettable.  Lose yourself in layer upon rich layer and a stellar cast of characters.  Read Dominic Smith’s lovely new work, you lucky reader, you.  It is truly a find.

The Electric Hotel is not scheduled for release until June 4, 2019 so put this on your calendar.  Not to be missed!!!

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Sarah Crichton Books via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.
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"The Last Painting of Sara de Vos" was an extraordinary reading experience and a tough act to follow. Author Dominic Smith appears to be a writer ready to transport readers to a totally different world. Instead of 17th century Amsterdam, he takes us to the turn of the 20th century world of early cinema.

As a young French photographer, Claude Ballard sees a demonstration of moving "filmstrips" presented by the Lumiere brothers. He is fascinated, and begins making these very brief films himself in hopes of joining the brothers in bringing this new art form to the world. He will do this, traveling the world collecting images and sharing them with eager audiences.

In the 1960s, Claude is living in a worn Hollywood hotel with the nitrate films of his career disintegrating around him. A young film historian runs him down to hear his story and offers to restore the films Claude has been trying to preserve. But most of all, he's come to talk to him about "The Electric Hotel," the vanished film he considered his masterpiece. 

As the two ends of Claude's story come together, we meet a cast of characters including Sabine Montrose, the respected French actress whose filmstrip of a playful bubble bath with a soapy kiss blown to the audience changes all their lives.

This is a lovely novel, offering rich, appealing characters, exploration of a little known glimpse into a brief period of film history and a new window into World War 1.. "The Electric Hotel" is an immersive experience.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for permission to review this fine novel.
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I received a DIGITAL Advance Reader Copy of this book from #NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  

From the publisher, as I do not regurgitate the contents or story of books in reviews, I let them do it.

From the New York Times bestselling author Dominic Smith, a radiant novel tracing the intertwined fates of a silent-film director and his muse

Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel winds through the nascent days of cinema in Paris and Fort Lee, New Jersey—America’s first movie town—and on the battlefields of Belgium during World War I. A sweeping work of historical fiction, it shimmers between past and present as it tells the story of the rise and fall of a prodigious film studio and one man’s doomed obsession with all that passes in front of the viewfinder.

For nearly half a century, Claude Ballard has been living at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel. A French pioneer of silent films, who started out as a concession agent for the Lumière brothers, the inventors of cinema, Claude now spends his days foraging mushrooms in the hills of Los Angeles and taking photographs of runaways and the striplings along Sunset Boulevard. But when a film-history student comes to interview Claude about The Electric Hotel—the lost masterpiece that bankrupted him and ended the career of his muse, Sabine Montrose—the past comes surging back. In his run-down hotel suite, the ravages of the past are waiting to be excavated: celluloid fragments and reels in desperate need of restoration, and Claude’s memories of the woman who inspired and beguiled him.

Having just read into the movie empire once based in Fort Lee, NJ and the early "poverty row" studios (as they were called according to "Images of America") out in Hollywood I was fascinated by the story behind this book.   It is a gripping tale that spans almost 5 decades and it is so gritty I almost had to wipe the dirt out of my eyes. This was not an easy life to read about (war is literally hell), but in the end, it was rewarding. Very rewarding.

The story is well crafted and so enjoyable - ask my husband how I ignored him the entire time I was reading it. Dominic Smith is an excellent author with an interesting back story - he is an NYT writer and an Aussie living in Texas which is certainly an interesting journey, if not resulting accent. GREAT JOB!!  Be forewarned book club, this is on this year's menu - I hope that you fall in love for Claude Ballard as much as I did. 

As always, I try to find a reason to not rate with stars as I love emojis (outside of Instagram and Twitter) so let's give it 🎞️📽️🏨🎬🎥
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