The setting is the fictional Royale Hotel in downtown DC. In it, Power—a resident of The Plains, Virginia—constructs a world where people are connected to one another whether they realize it or not. Working quietly in the hotel’s basement is Jedra Abdullah, an Iraqi immigrant hopelessly in love with Phyllis, a lobby receptionist. While Jedra is haunted by the memory of his slain brother, Phyllis struggles to suppress memories of the time she believes she has spent in heaven.
Upstairs are hotel guests Kouri Karimi and Daniel Espiritu. Kouri is an Iranian businessman who, like Jedra and Phyllis, is coping with a life lacking in companionship. He becomes enamored of a maid named Patricia, a single mother who dreams of being a poet. Daniel, meanwhile, never leaves his room and is convinced he’s living in his native Brazil. He meets the Royale’s newest chef, Leslie Downing, who is doing her best to revitalize both her love life and the hotel’s struggling restaurant.
In Power’s characters, desperation serves as a catalyst for change. All are trying to escape their personal voids and reconnect to themselves and the world. “Was it a coincidence,” Power writes of Downing, “that since her heart had closed up in the area of love her cooking had failed her as well?”
Power explores not only matters of the heart but also aspects of Brazilian, Iranian, and Iraqi culture, including cuisine. While interesting at times, the attempt to connect cooking to larger themes—such as the act of creating and commitment to one’s culture—can seem like a stretch: Several times, Power digresses to give recipes for dishes made in her characters’ homelands—tangents that are hardly necessary.
Parts of the book, particularly in the beginning, seem unrealistic or inconsistent with the overall tone. When Jedra and Phyllis get stuck in an elevator, a sudden kiss by the virtual strangers comes across as more funny than romantic. But as the narrative proceeds, Power’s passionate and captivating prose takes over. Of intimacy, she writes: “It feels like we are scratching and gnawing at its door in fevered desperation, then backing away as the door promises to be opened. Why is it so terrifying to know another person . . . to simply be in their presence and let truth occur?”
Such moments exemplify Power’s talents. She is a gifted writer, and The Sea of Tears is enjoyable, but her best work is likely still to come.