Gabrielle Burton's Heartbreak Hotel
In her novel Heartbreak Hotel Gabrielle Burton creates the Museum of The Revolution (MOTR) in Buffalo, New York to capture images of women's history. Told in a flexible prose that often resembles poetic form, this is a story of the modern feminist movement told through the memories of seven women. First published in 1986, some of the references will already seem obscure to younger readers. For example, they may find it hard to grasp the ERA, Modess sanitary napkins, hairdressers named Mr. William, and body braces. Then again, pink razors and eyelash curlers are still in use.
The women in this story embody different aspects of Burton's version of Everywoman: a cheerleader, a belly dancer, a comedian, a cop, an alcoholic, a monster, and an ex-nun. In fact, all the main characters' names are revealed as being derived from the same word. Sometimes the confusion with identity can be distracting. In the prologue we are told that "the curator" Margaret Valentine has had an accident. Yet on the next page we are told it's the character named Quasi who is in the hospital, and that Daisy is the curator. Daisy takes on the name M. Valentine when she visits Quasi in the hospital, so it can be assumed they are somehow the same person.
Together, the seven women face a crisis. As we follow the story we continually get each woman's perspective, and the effect can be both overwhelming and exhilarating. The museum itself resembles the Smithsonian in its scope and size. MOTR is 20 city blocks long, requiring trains and buses to cross it. We learn about surreal exhibits like The Waiting Room where women wait:
for their nails to dry
their make-up to set [...]
to be let out of the automobile
for the tire to be changed
for sex to be initiated
for their periods [...]
for the children to come home
for the children to leave home
for the children to visit [...]
The characters play active roles within the exhibits as guides and participants. Pearl the comedian goes to The Waiting Room to wait for her agent to call. Rita the belly dancer goes to the Hall of Mirrors to show off her new outfit.
Some of the literary devices Burton uses to convey her message feel awkward. She employs litany, news bulletins, songs, and uppercase text to set different sections apart from each other on the page. In the 1980s, it was popular to talk about a woman-centered form of writing that was more elusive, circular, and open-ended than male writing. However, the style didn't catch on and today, Burton's prose looks self-conscious.
What winds up being most powerful in the book are the stories of real people that Burton borrows from newspapers and television. Graphic accounts of serial murders, rape, and domestic violence pepper the book. Tales of medicine and religion being used as tools of oppression of women ring just as true today as they did at the start of the feminist movement. In this sense, Burton's book is an important reminder of a continuing struggle and the need to resist complacency over battles won by past generations.