Stories of supernaturally-afflicted hotels are easy to find, but can be hard to get right. Characters first must be brought to the hotel, enticed to stay, and then convinced to linger even when presented with evidence that they should run for the hills. Suzanne Young takes a stab at the “haunted hotel” novel with Hotel Ruby, a mostly successful YA romance-horror mash-up with really enjoyable elements of surprise.
After their mother’s sudden and unexpected death, Audrey Casella and her older brother Daniel are being relocated from Arizona to Nevada, where their father will leave them in the care of their strict, aloof grandmother. Their father claims it’s just for a summer, so he can get himself back into a parenting frame of mind, but the teenagers know better. On the drive up, they decide to stop for a night at the Hotel Ruby, so Dad can get some much-needed rest. The concierge, Kenneth, is more than happy to describe the hotel’s opulent amenities and drop hints about guests who don’t seem to ever check out or leave. And indeed, the Casella family extends their stay, since everyone could use some pampering and relaxation. There are wealthy and attractive guests like Elias or Catherine to spend time with, it never (ever) rains, and every night there’s a splendid party. What could go wrong?
The Hotel Ruby itself is described in lush, ornate detail, which I very much appreciated. It’s necessary to have strong mental pictures of the ballroom, dining area, lounge, service and staff areas, and the distinctions between varying floors of the hotel, in order to recognize when things have gone slightly or severely awry. Young plays with the reader, too, giving Audrey an unenviable experience — her food always tastes weird, her cell phone doesn’t work, there are no clocks anywhere in the hotel, and her father and brother abandon her for long stretches of time — while her family members gush over how much fun they’re having at events that she isn’t allowed to attend. It’s not immediately clear whether Audrey’s being deliberately obstinate or there’s something else going on, and that mystery keeps the plot moving.
Most of the character interactions were well-written: Daniel and Audrey bicker and reconcile like real siblings would, Audrey’s friendship with staff member Lourdes develops along believable lines, and Audrey’s relationships with her father and (now-deceased) mother are portrayed realistically. Kenneth lurks forbiddingly in the background of nearly every scene, to delightfully creepy effect. At the same time, Catherine could have used a little more depth beyond “sadistic rival for Elias’ affection,” and I didn’t like how quickly Audrey’s relationship with Elias turned obsessive. I also thought that Young’s use of the cliché of two young people destined to be together was a shortcut around any weight to their relationship, which was a shame. Hotel Ruby only takes place over a few days, which isn’t enough time for teenage infatuation to mature into anything deeper, so why not present that instantaneous and heady rush of emotion on its face? If the character in question had said something along the lines of “I’ve been waiting for someone like you” rather than specifically waiting for that other person, it would have read as a more natural conversation to me.
There were times when Hotel Ruby read more as a romance novel with some supernatural elements than a horror novel with a romance subplot, but those moments didn’t overwhelm my general enjoyment. Young uses familiar “spooky hotel” tropes to her advantage, including a posh anniversary party for the hotel’s opening and creepy music which only Audrey can hear, to create an oppressive air of dread and entrapment. At no point did I feel completely certain that things were going to work out well for Audrey or her family, and I enjoyed the way Young built suspense around that uncertainty. There was a Big Reveal which I guessed earlier than I think I was supposed to, and the ending didn’t have the sharply ironic twist that I was really hoping for, but these may be totally unique to my reading experience. I’m sure that other readers will be much happier with the conclusion.
If you’re looking for some mild chills and disturbing imagery, along with plucky heroines who face off against fiendish foes, Hotel Ruby may be right for you. I’d recommend this for older YA readers, due to some graphic scenes of violence and scenes of physical contact between some handsy teenagers.
The idea that others are off having a good time at an event you’re not invited to must be a primal human — and teenager — fear. The descriptions of the hotel sounds wonderful! Thanks for letting me know about this book.
I think you’re right, particularly when it’s obvious that the person who’s left out would have a fantastic time if only they were allowed to attend. :)