Review & Giveaway: THE GUEST ROOM by Chris Bohjalian

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I have a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Chris Bohjalian. Despite the fact that he is one of the most prolific and popular fiction writers of the past 20 years, I have had bad luck with his books. I’ve read three previous Bohjalians—two were “just fine” reads (nothing to write home about) and the other one…well, it is probably one of my least favorite books ever. In spite of this rather lackluster track record, I decided to pick up his latest offering…and boy am I glad I did! Read on for my review of this novel as well as a truly amazing giveaway opportunity!

THE GUEST ROOM cover

Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction, Thriller
Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)
Format & Source: Hardcover borrowed from my local library
 
Official Summary
From the New York Times bestselling author of Midwives and The Sandcastle Girls comes the spellbinding tale of a party gone horribly wrong: two men lie dead in a suburban living room, two women are on the run from police, and a marriage is ripping apart at the seams.
 
When Kristin Chapman agrees to let her husband, Richard, host his brother’s bachelor party, she expects a certain amount of debauchery. She brings their young daughter to Manhattan for the evening, leaving her Westchester home to the men and their hired entertainment. What she does not expect is this: bacchanalian drunkenness, her husband sharing a dangerously intimate moment in the guest room, and two women stabbing and killing their Russian bodyguards before driving off into the night.
 
In the aftermath, Kristin and Richard’s life rapidly spirals into nightmare. The police throw them out of their home, now a crime scene, Richard’s investment banking firm puts him on indefinite leave, and Kristin is unsure if she can forgive her husband for the moment he shared with a dark-haired girl in the guest room. But the dark-haired girl, Alexandra, faces a much graver danger. In one breathless, violent night, she is free, running to escape the police who will arrest her and the gangsters who will kill her in a heartbeat. A captivating, chilling story about shame and scandal, The Guest Room is a riveting novel from one of our greatest storytellers.
 
 

Laura‘s Review

This book is sometimes an emotionally difficult read, but it is such an important one. It alternates between telling the story of Richard, a “good guy” who had the bad luck of hosting a bachelor party that got out of control, and Alexandra, a 19-year-old sex slave from Armenia.

Parts of Richard’s story are relatable to most people—making a mistake or a stupid decision that you wish you could take back, doing something in a moment of weakness that then has myriad effects on your life and the lives of your loved ones. But it is Alexandra’s story that is the most compelling—her journey from being an aspiring ballerina in Armenia to being a sex slave in New York City.

And then, at some point, you wake up to the fact that although this particular story is fictional and a bit sensationalized with regard to the bachelor party murder, etc., this is a story that thousands and thousands of girls are living RIGHT NOW. Human trafficking is a huge problem, and there are more slaves right now than at any other time in history. Think about THAT for a minute (in light of the fact that there was a whole era of American history where slavery was a pretty big deal).

While Richard is to some extent the moral compass of the story, his brother Philip and his friend Spencer (who hired the service) represent the clueless American “everyman”—despite all that went down, their general unrepentance is shocking and nauseating. They feel sorry for themselves that they had to witness such a horrible scene (the murder) and can’t help but remark about how, despite all of the trouble, it was still the “hottest sex they’ve ever had.” They seem to operate under the mistaken belief that the girls were actually really into them, not realizing they are basically threatened with death if they don’t please the clients. It’s exactly this kind of attitude that allows this stuff go on…it’s a victimless crime as long as they pay, right?

Tell me, who’s worse? Someone who sells young girl or someone who buys one?
 
 

There would be no need for underage sex slaves if there was no demand for them, but there is. And make no mistake, these aren’t grad students looking to make a little money to put themselves through school, or exotic dancers and strippers, these are straight up sex slaves. They show up with bodyguards with guns (a pretty good clue).

Bohjalian does a good job of describing the ramifications of this one night on many people. Even though Richard is responsible to some extent (he allowed this to take place in his house), you can’t help but feel bad for him as the media rakes him over the coals and his relationships with his wife and daughter suffer. And as bad as you might feel for Richard, you are then reminded of who the true victims in this scenario are.

It’s a solid read that will leave you thinking and would be a great book club pick, because there’s a lot to unpack in this relatively short novel. Were the girls justified in killing their captors? Could you forgive a husband for a moment’s indiscretion?

My one criticism is Bohjalian’s tendency to overwrite. He has a really good novel with good characters, so I’m puzzled by this, but every so often you come across stuff like this:

[Her clothes] cascaded onto the floor like the soap bubbles that once flooded the kitchen from the dishwasher the time that Richard had put dishwashing liquid instead of dishwasher gel into the machine.
 
 

What the heck? That is one of the most tortured similes I have ever read! Plus he will often use a “$100 word” when a $2 word would have done just fine. For a story that is about a subject as raw and emotional as sex slavery and marriage infidelity, the academic writing can sometimes be a bit off-putting and provides a layer of separation that prevents the reader from ever being completely absorbed into the story. There’s also one rather silly subplot that I felt was overdone.

It isn’t exactly a thriller, but the pace does accelerate toward the end as the book hurtles toward its conclusion. I started to worry that things were going to get wrapped up too neatly and happily—a big pet peeve of mine, especially in books that deal with such serious and complicated issues. Overall, I was very impressed and surprised with the way Bohjalian chose to end the book—it was unexpected and not sugarcoated.

Bottom Line

Definitely recommended. The Guest Room is an important read that may break your heart. It’s an issue book without being unnecessarily preachy—there are no perfect characters or perfect resolution. Kudos to Bohjalian for raising awareness of this issue.

For more information and for ways you can help, check out the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST) or Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS).

Rating: B+ (4½ stars)

Buy Digital:  Kindle  |  Nook
 
Buy Print:  Amazon  |  B&N
 

 

 

Other Titles by Chris Bohjalian

THE LIGHT IN THE RUINS mini coverThe Light in the Ruins

Goodreads
 
Buy:  Amazon  |  Kindle  |  B&N  |  Nook
 
 

 

THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS mini coverThe Sandcastle Girls

Goodreads
 
Buy:  Amazon  |  Kindle  |  B&N  |  Nook
 
 

 

MIDWIVES mini coverMidwives

Goodreads
 
Buy:  Amazon  |  Kindle  |  B&N  |  Nook
 
 
 

 

The Guest Room Giveaway

The lovely folks at Doubleday have generously offered to give away a signed print copy of The Guest Room to THREE lucky Kindles & Wine commenters (U.S. residents only).

To enter for your chance to win, you must:

  1. Be a follower of this blog (click HERE to subscribe), AND…
  2. Reading this book inspired me to make a donation to CAST. Hit the comments and tell me: What is your favorite charity to donate to and why?

Please note: All entrants must review and adhere to our official giveaway policy. This contest will close on Friday, February 12, 2016 at 11:59 PM (CST) and the three winners will be notified via email on Saturday, February 13.

 
Chris BohjalianABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lincoln, Vermont’s Chris Bohjalian is the author of 18 books, most of which were New York Times bestsellers.  His work has been translated into over 30 languages and three times become movies.
 
His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, and Salon.
 
His awards include the ANCA Freedom Award for his work educating Americans about the Armenian Genocide; the ANCA Arts and Letters Award for The Sandcastle Girls, as well as the Saint Mesrob Mashdots Medal; the New England Society Book Award for The Night Strangers; the New England Book Award; Russia’s Soglasie (Concord) Award for The Sandcastle Girls; a Boston Public Library Literary Light; a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Trans-Sister Radio; and the Anahid Literary Award. His novel, Midwives, was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. He is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences.
 
He has written for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. He was a weekly columnist in Vermont for the Burlington Free Press from 1992 through 2015.
 
Chris graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from Amherst College, and lives in Vermont with his wife, the photographer Victoria Blewer. Their daughter, Grace Experience, is a young actor in New York City. Among the audiobooks she has narrated are Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands and The Guest Room.