In the Lobby of the Dream Hotel is like a Lifetime movie run amok. Author Genevieve Plunkett’s anti-heroine Portia is a thirtysomething aspiring guitarist who struggles with bipolar disorder. Though the story is apparently set in the present day, Portia tries to fulfill a 1950s-housewife role while simultaneously playing in a punk rock band. There, she meets drummer Theo, a fortyish man whom she “falls in love with.” (Although Portia is married with a child, Plunkett is primarily concerned with her G-rated romance.)
The overarching difficulty with the book is that Plunkett doesn’t understand what mental illness involves. Portia experiences delusions as part of her illness, and Plunkett writes around this with a comic vibe. When Portia hallucinates, her musical idol Alby Porter mystically appears to her. After she has a C-section, she believes he is whispering to her through a surgical mask. Portia delights in visions of Porter’s disembodied mouth singing the lyrics to his tunes. (She later praises his “long, bewitching teeth.”) Plunkett confuses hallucinations with spiritual visions. Porter appears to Portia not as a real hallucination, but as a spiritual guide at pivotal moments (often in a tight, blue leotard and garish face makeup).
On some level, Plunkett seems loosely aware of what bipolar disorder entails. In the novel, a nurse uses medical language to question Portia about her bipolar symptoms. Most of Portia’s struggle seems to be with her identity, which is symptomatic of a personality disorder rather than a mood disorder. She often asks herself, “Who will I be today?” and adopts new fashion styles in attempts to change her personality. Her grandiosity manifests in dreams where angels fit her with ”special . . . goggles” to see the “castle of God.” Portia’s bipolar disorder does not seem to manifest in her actual existence. Plunkett treats Portia’s illness as an amusing fantasy: she does not comprehend that it is an ongoing, daily struggle.
The novel takes a disturbing turn when introducing the character of Dr. Shay, Portia’s psychiatrist. Plunkett positions him as a possible romantic partner for Portia. Dr. Shay seems to have come out of the pages of a trashy romance: Plunkett emphasizes his unbuttoned dress shirt. Most alarmingly, she writes that he looked at Portia “like a lover.” Plunkett’s characterization of Dr. Shay is nonsensical. He glorifies Portia, worrying that the medication is “stifling her brilliance.” Although creativity can be a symptom of bipolar disorder, Portia is inept at writing music (when Portia hears a recording of one of her songs, she reels at the terrible clash of sounds). Dr. Shay’s misguidance exacerbates Portia’s aversion toward psychiatry. She comes to believe that her medication benefits her solely because it inspires her to clean the sink and fold socks. Dr. Shay further distorts Portia’s illness as a “quirky” character trait. He minimizes her bipolar disorder by describing it as akin to a heartbreak, conflating Portia’s feminine longings with her mental illness. The symbol of the heart is realized by Portia’s memory of a giant, robotically beating heart in The Franklin Institute. Plunkett disconcertingly likens the heart to a “padded cell.” Like Dr. Shay, Plunkett characterizes Portia’s struggle as a matter of the heart, something trivial and feminine.
Theo and Portia’s clunky, sex-free romance is ridiculous: Portia salivates when she imagines kissing Theo. Once committed to the psych ward, Portia lies on the ground, up against the wall, believing that her vibrations will penetrate the air that Theo breathes. Prior to the psych ward, Portia and Theo are determined not to have sex due to Portia’s marital status. They deliberate over their options. The standout solution: “If we could shape-shift, like werewolves, then it would not be wrong.” Portia fantasizes about donating blood to Theo after he falls victim to a horrible imagined accident, thus bonding them for life. Plunkett’s centralizing this absurd union in Portia’s mental health story is offensive and ludicrous, as it implies that Portia’s illness must exist in opposition to a man to be important. Plunkett’s enchantment with writing romance has impeded her from doing the necessary research and character development that would make Portia’s bipolar disorder believable. By failing to do so, Plunkett has created a farce. With her novel, she inadvertently asserts that to write about women with mental illness, men have to play a central role. She minimizes women’s pain just as her male characters minimized Portia’s illness. In turn, she does a disservice to those suffering with bipolar disorder.
In the Lobby of the Dream Hotel
By Genevieve Plunkett
Published August 15, 2023