Tag Archives: family drama

When Bad Things Happen, are the Good People Still Good?: The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian (no spoilers)

cover imageThe Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian missed the mark for me, personally, but it would be a good book club choice and is a good read…just not a knock-me-over-with-a-feather one! It’s about decisions and consequences…good people doing bad things, by choice or by force or for reasons that are murky even to them.

Richard, the main character, is an investment banker, but not in a predatory way. He’s a good guy, and works hard to earn his high salary. He’s happy in his marriage, loves his nine-year-old daughter,  and tries to model appropriate behavior for his much younger, wilder brother, Jeff, and hopes to keep him in check by hosting Jeff’s bachelor’s party at his home in Westchester, a wealthy New York City suburb. This bad decision leads to other bad decisions which make a very bad series of events worse for Richard, who might otherwise be seen as blameless in the tragic aftermath.

What missed the mark for me? I think it was the alternating chapters in the voice of Alexandra, one of two young Armenian women who were hired by Richard’s brother’s sleazy friend Spencer to come to the bachelor’s party. They didn’t ring true enough for me to forget that they were actually written by the white, male, middle-aged author. Also, The Guest Room could be intended to shake readers out of complacency over the real-life crime of sex trafficking by bringing it into the world of an “average”, innocent person, but instead of becoming real people to me, the characters seemed to be playing assigned roles in the story.

Maybe listening to the audio edition would have helped, as I assume the chapters in Alexandra’s voice are read by Mozhan Marno, who speaks multiple languages. The author’s daughter, Grace Experience, is listed as the second narrator. (She also narrated Close My Eyes by Chris Bohjalian, which I haven’t listened to.)

I thought the audio editions of Double Bind and The Night Strangers were great, so maybe I just fall under the spell of Chris Bohjalian’s storytelling more easily when his books are read aloud to me by professionals, instead of leaving it up to my imagination.

The story is exciting; it carries the book along. Book clubs will find plenty to talk about!

Listen to the opening of The Guest Room here. Read the opening of the print edition of The Guest Room here.

If you have read or listened to The Guest Room, what did you think? Am I off base here?

The Guest Room [has] an edge-of-the-seat momentum that propels the reader straight to the last page… For those who value the well-researched novel, the author’s 18th book will please… Promises to enlighten and entertain.”
— Anita Shreve, The Washington Post

The Guest Room
Bohjalian, Chris
Knopf Doubleday
Jan. 5, 2016
336 pp.$25.95 US

Disclosure: I received a free e-ARC of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.

Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah @RecordedBooks

cover image of audiobook on CDHiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah begins with a violent terrorist attack on the United Nations office in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, but from that suspenseful opening springs a surprisingly uneventful domestic drama about being (or feeling like) foreigners in a country, with discussions of cultural differences and cultural attitudes about homosexuality threaded throughout.

When her half brother, Aar, who worked for the United Nations, is killed by the bomb explosion, just before he headed home to Nairobi, a grieving Bella hurries from her apartment in Rome to Nairobi to care for her teenaged niece and nephew, whose mother had left them at a very early age. The situation becomes more complicated when the long-estranged mother shows up in Nairobi with her lesbian lover, Padmini. These five become the main cast of characters in the story, with Aar at the center, though not present.

Actress Robin Miles has won many awards for her audiobook narrations; she voices all the parts well here, especially Bella’s. Bella, as her name indicates, is model-quality beautiful and also an acclaimed art photographer who travels around the world and has lovers in several countries –no baggage or strings attached – but she seems to have no second thoughts as she (devoted sister and aunt) drops everything to fly to Kenya and pick up parental responsibility for her brother’s children. (Granted, the children are teenagers who attend boarding school in Nairobi, so won’t require constant care.) Robin Miles creates empathy for Bella in the listener, despite Bella’s perfect life.

Hiding in Plain Sight is a believable story about a well-off, well-educated, but unconventional family, and I grew to care about the characters. Recommended for audiobook listeners who are interested in thinking about the different forms that intimacy can take, and the push and pull of family and society vs. the individual, with the addition of characters from various countries, races, and cultures to make it more interesting. (Countries on four continents are represented.)

Hiding in Plain Sight
Farah, Nuruddin, author
Miles, Robin, narrator
Recorded Books, 2014
11.5 hours/10 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook from the publisher.

Failure to Communicate: Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

cover image of CartwheelCartwheel is Jennifer duBois’ second novel, after A Partial History of Lost Causes (which I bought a copy of over a year ago and have yet to read.) Many reviewers loved it; it was chosen as a staff favorite for 2013 at Slate and hit #12 on the list of 50 Best Books of 2013 at BookPage.

In Cartwheel, a father travels with his college-age daughter to Buenos Aires, to be joined shortly by his ex-wife. Not for a vacation, but because their other daughter, Lily, has been arrested and put in jail on suspicion of killing her roommate while doing a semester abroad in Argentina. Both young women, the victim and the accused, were American college students sharing a room in the home of the same host family. Lily’s father has heard reports in the local and national media that Lily was seen on security camera footage doing a cartwheel when left alone in the police interrogation room. He want to doubt this fact, but can’t. This action of his incautious daughter – easily lending itself to multiple interpretations – makes Lily a lightning rod for the tabloids and other media.

At the start of the book there is this note:

“Although the themes of this book were loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox, this is entirely a work of fiction. None of the characters are real. None of the events ever happened. Nothing in this book should be read as a factual statement about real-life events or people.”

The author’s depiction of a privileged Middlebury College student – unsure of how to behave with her host family, perhaps jealous of her prettier, more socially adept roommate – getting caught in a web of police investigation with a weak alibi and an even weaker grasp of Spanish, places a reader into the thick of the confusion and mixed signals, leaving a reader as exasperated with Lily’s behavior as her father is. It is easy enough to misinterpret actions and what people say in normal, everyday life, especially in a foreign language and culture. How much more so after a horrendous tragedy! What is evidence, a clue, and what is random or just an error in judgment? Is Lily naive and socially awkward, or privileged and arrogant?

I liked Cartwheel as I was reading it, but so much was left unknown and unsaid, that I ended up dissatisfied with it. I kept expecting to understand more about each character, but then the book ended and I didn’t. Maybe if I had followed the story of Amanda Knox (who has written a memoir, Waiting to Be Heard) and was more familiar with the details, I could have compared the novel, while reading it, to the tabloid reportage that came out at the time when the American study-abroad student Amanda Knox was arrested and (eventually) acquitted. Or maybe I read Cartwheel too soon after reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which was just the kind of enormous, sprawling, family story I love.

For whatever reason, although I admired the writing and enjoyed all the wordplay and clever characterizations, Cartwheel just didn’t come together for me in the end.

Read the beginning of the novel here.

duBois, Jennifer
Random House
Sept. 24, 2013
384 pp.

Disclosure: I was given access to an electronic advance reading copy by the publisher through NetGalley, but didn’t get to it in time, so I read this book from the public library.

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