Thursday, May 12, 2016

Book 24: The Guest Room

Dates read: February 25-28, 2016

Rating: 6/10

"He realized how much he was dreading the sunrise: it would illuminate just how much his world had changed since yesterday- and how damaged was the little bark that carried his soul, how far it was from the shore, and how menacing were the waves in between. No one, he knew, was ever going to look at him quite the same way again."

As someone getting married soon (about a month after this post will go live, but about three-ish months from when I'm writing it), reading a novel about a bachelor party gone horribly wrong is...interesting. Not that I'm worried about Drew having the kind of party that goes on in The Guest Room. If I were, I wouldn't be marrying him.

In The Guest Room, Richard Chapman is just trying to be a good best man when he agrees to host his little brother Phillip's bachelor party at his home. He sends his wife and young daughter away for the weekend, expecting the usual kind of bachelor deal: drinking, carousing, maybe strippers. What he gets are two young Eastern European women in his living room that are clearly more than "just" strippers: they're prostitutes. What he doesn't realize until much later is that they aren't "just" prostitutes, but women who are being trafficked for sex. After he comes close to but ultimately stops himself from sleeping with one of them, his entire world is turned upside down when they violently kill their "bodyguards" and take off. The story splits and follows two tracks: what happens with Richard as the ramifications of that night spiral out of control in both his personal and professional lives, and the story of Alexandra, the girl Richard almost slept with, both before and after that night.

While author Chris Bohjalian does a great job of making Richard a sympathetic character, using him as a lens to show how even fundamentally decent men participate in and perpetuate a culture that treats women as commodities, Alexandra's is the more dynamic story. An aspiring ballerina in Armenia, she is lured away from home after both her parents die by her mother's former employer with promises of dance training and a career. Once she's taken, the 15 year-old is repeatedly raped, groomed to become a high-class call girl over the course of a few years in Russia, and then comes to the US, where the bachelor party is among her first assignments.

There's a distaste, if not recoil, by "normal" people when they think about the idea of a woman having sex for money. What kind of person would consider something like that? Why on earth? I was among them, but over the past couple years, I've been reading Maggie McNeill's excellent blog, and I've come to understand that plenty of women willingly chose the sex trade for lots of perfectly understandable reasons. While sex slavery does exist, it's MUCH less prevalent than most people would believe. So while the story told by Alexandra might be true for some small number of women, your average escort has a much more prosaic background. And while I think Bohjalian chooses to make her story dramatic for the purpose of impact, it still perpetuates a mythology that a lot of people cling to which is ultimately harmful for sex workers.

As I whole, I found the book decent but not great and ultimately forgettable. There's a good amount of suspense built in Richard's storyline, wondering how things are going to play out for him, and even more in Alexandra's storyline once it gets to the "after the murder" part. But the ending felt...undercooked, for lack of a better way to describe it. It seemed like Bohjalian wrote himself into a corner and kind of flailed his way out of it. On a final, nitpicky note, I've never had to Google as many words in the course of one book as I did with this one. I think of myself as having a pretty extensive vocabulary, but there were many words I'd never encountered before. Which is great on one level, because I'm always down to add a new word to my trove. But it struck me as a little pretentious, since most of those words were used when a simpler, more accessible one would have been perfectly appropriate.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your favorite pretentious vocab word?

**I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review**

Note: Review cross-posted at Cannonball Read

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