In this almost-all-girl reprise of the collaborative fiction Finbar's Hotel, Dermot Bolger skillfully weaves together eight chapters, each contributed by a different Irish writer, into a light, coherent, and highly readable novel about a culture in flux. The old Finbar's had been a dark, unchanging place, a "grade two" businessman's hotel in Dublin smelling of gravy and overcooked meat. The impressive new establishment, owned and renovated by the not-quite-respectable Dutch wife of a rock star, is a symbol of 21st-century Ireland--unquaint and anonymous, its chilly white surfaces are indistinguishable from those of a Hilton or a Marriott, despite the "Irish Bar" tucked into one corner of the lobby as a sop to tourists. Bolger is the only man among the writers included, and it is to his credit (or a handsome rebuttal to the old argument about "men's" and "women's" voices in fiction) that we can't tell his contribution from the others. None of the chapters lists its author--a brilliant if unsettling device--so that readers are left wondering whether the bestselling Maeve Binchy, for example, can be distinguished from Anne Haverty and Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, both of whom write poetry as well as prose. Other contributors are Kate O'Riordan, Deirdre Purcell, and Dublin natives Clare Boylan and Emma Donoghue.
Most of the female protagonists are returning to the Dublin of their youth after finding success elsewhere: a former maid comes back to meet the son she gave up for adoption; a faded movie starlet's luck takes a strangely positive turn; a nun looks for a man to sleep with. In "Da Da Da--Daa," an up-and-coming designer tries to corner the Dublin market for her soft, Celtic-inspired fashion line, and instead must endure a long encounter with her mentally ill father. Looking anxiously around the lobby as her room is being readied, Poppy realizes the risks she is taking just by showing up again in the city of her troubled childhood. And if she cannot make her mark as a designer in Dublin, what will success anywhere else mean? But at least for a moment, her assistant takes her mind off her own problems:
He returned her smile confidently, but he was mincing like a camp poodle, so she knew he was nervous. First time to Ireland for this second-generation Bronxer. Secretly, he'd expected to be lynched. So he swaggered, flaunting the homosexuality that had so repelled his Roscommon father. So nervous, he couldn't yet see that the fabled Ireland of his youth, the endless, monotonous, force-fed sentimentality of his parents, had no bearing on this new country. For all the world as though he couldn't see the blatant y.e.s. tattooed on the buttocks of the porter's young assistant. Although the early chapters of Ladies' Night read more like short stories than the opening of a conventional novel, Bolger teases the reader with recurrent scenes and characters, so that the final stories bring satisfying conclusions to several mysteries--and not a few surprises. --Regina Marler