Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Review of "The Guest Room" by Chris Bohjalian

Richard and Kristin Chapman - fortyish, happily married, and living in upscale Bronxville, New York - are the ideal couple. Richard is an investment banker; Kristin is a high school history teacher; and they get along great with their 9-year-old daughter Melissa - who loves movies, fancy tights, and dance classes.

Richard's brother Philip, a hotel manager who's the 'gray sheep' of the family, is about to get married and Richard decides to host a bachelor party in his home. Kristin accomodatingly takes Melissa to Grandma's house for the night, letting the boys get on with the fun. Turns out all this is a bad idea.

The groom's friend Spencer - who organizes the party - hires a couple of strippers named Sonja and Alexandra to entertain the guests. It turns out the 'strippers' (translation...prostitutes) are exotically beautiful Eastern European waifs who've been forced into the sex trade by Russian mobsters. Thus, the gals are accompanied by two strapping bald bodyguards armed with guns.

To cut to the chase: the party guests get VERY drunk and the entertainment progresses from stripping, to lap-dancing, to touching....and then to full on to sex for some of the men. And straight-laced Richard gets carried away and takes Alexandra up to the guest room - where he does some things he's ashamed of.

After Richard and Alexandra return downstairs, things REALLY get out of control. Sonja grabs a knife from the kitchen and viciously attacks one of the bodyguards, the girls get hold of a gun, the other bodyguard gets shot, and the girls take off in the car that brought them - leaving two dead Russians behind.

The cops descend on the house, the party guests are questioned at the police station, and - in the following days - Richard has to face Kristin, his daughter, his bosses, and so on.

The story is told in the rotating voices of Alexandra, Richard, Kristin, and Melissa. Thus, we learn something about the history of the characters as well as what's going on with them after the party.

Alexandra grew up in Armenia, studied ballet, and - at the age of fifteen - was tricked into going to Russia to 'become a ballerina'. Instead Alexandra was brutally raped and forced to become a prostitute ('sex slave'), along with other coerced young girls. Eventually, some of the girls were taken to New York to work. Trouble ensued, the Russian criminals feared exposure, and Sonja thought the bodyguards planned to kill her after the bachelor party. So she took the bull by the horns...... And now Alexandra and Sonja are on the run, being sought by the Russian mobsters and the cops.

Richard is embarassed and humiliated after news of the 'sex party' and murders goes public. Having previously been a faithful spouse, good father, and reliable employee he now has to deal with a furious/hurt wife, a bewildered daughter, and censorious bosses. To add to Richard's troubles, someone with illicit photos tries a spot of blackmail.

Kristin has to face her advance placement history students, who - along with their parents - worry that all this will somehow affect their AP scores and college prospects (this reaction is so true....it made me smile). Kristin also obsesses about Richard doing something (she's not sure what) with a prostitute, her daughter's worry and distress, and her tainted, bloody house.

Melissa doesn't quite understand what happened, is concerned about her father, and fears her parents might get a divorce.

Some of the most engaging scenes in the book are narrated by Alexandra, in good but quirky English. I was drawn in by Alexandra's descriptions of growing up in Armenia with her mother and grandmother, the food they ate, the many Barbie dolls she owned, and her love of ballet.

On the down side, the depictions of sex trafficking, and what Alexandra was forced to do (not too graphic) were disturbing. The idea that women are used like that - and develop a sort of Stockholm Syndrome and go along with it all - is terrible to think about.

Alexandra talks a lot about her country, and in one scene she describes a horrific earthquake that devastated an Armenian town before she was born. This was enlightening but had almost nothing to do with the plot and pulled me out of the story. It just didn't seem to belong.

Overall, I liked the book very much. It's well-written and tells a compelling and suspenseful story. It also has a broad range of engaging characters that act like real people. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

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