Operatic Divas and Naked Irishmen
by Nancy R. Hinchliff

She Writes Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-631-52194-2.
Reviewed by D Ferrara
Posted on 09/28/2017

Nonfiction: Memoir

Who hasn't fantasized about running a bed and breakfast? These daydreams generally pop up right after a weekend in a charming little place, or after touring through an old mansion. A misty film falls over reality and visions of fresh baked scones float past, It must have been something like this that inspired Nancy R. Hinchliff to switch gears—and climates—at a time when most people are looking forward to cruises, punctuated with a little gardening. At age sixty-four, thrice divorced, she moves out of Chicago and heads for Louisville. Does she know anyone in Louisville? Only an on-again, off-again friend, Maggie, who barely seems to notice her friend's relocation.

Inevitably, the dream of a bed and breakfast crashes almost at once. Not only is the house Hinchliff buys—a once elegant mansion—woefully unsuitable for a modern bed and breakfast, but the neighborhood is not-quite-ready-for-gentrification. Her first employee is a junkie. Her first guests eat her out of many days worth of food—in one day. She needs five rooms to break even, but only has four.

Although she has the energy of a cyclone, Hinchliff is not a natural at being a hotelier. In her own words, she's "asocial" and a "perfectionist with OCD tendencies," who proves a demanding boss. With candor, she admits to some monumentally dumb moves: opening a bed and breakfast without knowing that the neighborhood is unsavory, getting contractors without contracts, hiring that first employee—the junkie—from a chance encounter on the street. No references even requested. Still, she soldiers on.

In the twenty years she owns the inn, she runs through a lot of employees. Bryan, the lovely young man with a gentle touch for divas; Kari who can't seem to finish a single task, but wants to buy the inn; Quentin, a spoiled momma's boy, and others. As with many small business owners, Hinchliff can't keep the good ones and hates to fire the bad. In her spare time, she writes, blogs and networks. She breaks her foot, finds some more employees, soldiers on. Then, in her eighties, she packs it up—but keeps writing.

The book has some interesting stories and even some recipes. What it lacks is a sense of joy or connection. Hinchliff came to Louisville with little sense of the city, and aside from learning about the Kentucky Derby, she never seems to want to be a part of the place. Her inn could be anywhere.

I never got the sense that she liked the city or running a bed and breakfast. Louisville was a place, and the inn was a challenge, an Everest to climb, and she did it. Her guests were more necessary inconveniences then welcome visitors. Even the ones she professes to like, like the befuddled Mr. Block, are ultimately more nuisance than anything else. She loved learning about Victorian and decorating the inn, which was, apparently, reason enough to do it.

This sense of disconnection is exacerbated by the structure of the book. It is episodic and non-linear, common enough for memoir. The author shares little of her life before or even during her time as an innkeeper. She mentions she has two daughters, is estranged from one and "best friends" with the other, and that's about it. Married and divorced three times. she gives us no sense of her marriages. She spends several chapters sniping about Maggie, her Louisville friend. Why did she pack up thirty years of Chicago life to move to a city where Maggie was the only person she knew? (Maggie and Nancy's friendship ends in a fight over a comforter.) Instead of exploring that, she spends a chapter assessing the multiple failures of a housekeeper, Jason.

She never shares why she was planning to move to Austin with her daughter, or much of anything else about her family. We never learn her other daughter's name, let alone what caused the rift between them.

The last few chapters are largely complaints and self-congratulations, and the assertion that she would do it all again. Why? Because she did it once, she beat the odds. Almost as an afterthought, she picks up a thread from the first chapter—how she passed on her mother's poor parenting to her own daughters—but by this point, we've already formed our impressions. Don't get me wrong: I admire a woman who takes her retirement fund and plunges into a new venture. I want to like her. At least, I'd like to know about her. Hinchliff, however, plays it close to the vest.

In the end, I settled for some interesting stories and pretty good recipes that left me wanting more.

At age 64, Nancy R. Hinchliff retired as a Chicago teacher and opened a bed and breakfast in Louisville. With little money and no business experience, she managed to create an elegant inn. While running the inn, she was an active writer, blogger, and member of Louisville's business community.

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