STARRED REVIEW
June 2019

The Electric Hotel

By Dominic Smith
Review by

Dominic Smith’s engaging new novel, The Electric Hotel, offers a deep dive into the history of early cinema. In the early 1960s, Claude Ballard, a retired French filmmaker, lives in a run-down hotel. When approached by a young graduate student named Martin Embry about the long-lost film masterpiece The Electric Hotel, Ballard is reluctant to revisit the past, but Embry’s enthusiasm encourages Ballard to recall his role in the making of an early cinematic treasure. Then Ballard reveals that he still has a copy of the film.

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Dominic Smith’s engaging new novel, The Electric Hotel, offers a deep dive into the history of early cinema. In the early 1960s, Claude Ballard, a retired French filmmaker, lives in a run-down hotel. When approached by a young graduate student named Martin Embry about the long-lost film masterpiece The Electric Hotel, Ballard is reluctant to revisit the past, but Embry’s enthusiasm encourages Ballard to recall his role in the making of an early cinematic treasure. Then Ballard reveals that he still has a copy of the film.

A photographer’s apprentice in Paris in the 1890s, Ballard was hired by the Lumière Brothers as a roaming projectionist. His travels took him as far away as Australia and America, where, in picaresque fashion, he befriended a stunt man, a French actress and the young owner of a seedy Brooklyn amusement parlor. Before long, this idiosyncratic troupe settled in the cliffs of Fort Lee, New Jersey (once a prime location for the making of American movies, hence the expression “cliffhanger”), pouring all their energy, money and talent into what Ballard refers to as the “great cinematic experiment.” It will come as no surprise to readers that the making of The Electric Hotel almost destroyed the lives and careers of the four friends.

As in Smith’s own masterpiece, The Last Painting of Sarah DeVos (2016), the joy in The Electric Hotel is in the getting there: the travels from Paris to New York at the very birth of cinema, the repeated run-ins with a litigious Thomas Edison and Ballard’s return to Europe amid the scarring battlefields of World War I. Though an extended set piece in war-ravished Belgium feels like a slight misstep, the novel quickly gets back on track as Ballard and Embry plan for a rerelease of the restored classic.

Smith skillfully blends film history with the adventures of his intriguing crew, never losing sight of their individuality. The Electric Hotel enchants with a compelling plot but satisfies with the fully felt pathos of its characters.

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The Electric Hotel

The Electric Hotel

By Dominic Smith
Sarah Crichton Books
ISBN 9780374146856

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