The Guest Room
“The Guest Room” A book by Chris Bohjalian To see long excerpts from “The Guest Room” at Google Books, click here.
International sex slavery is a nasty, brutish and illegal business. As many as 2.4 million young women, men and children are victims of sex trafficking for the profit of organized crime. In this lucrative business, the unwitting are lured into captivity by the promise of jobs, marriage and educational opportunities — or they are simply bought and sold as property. In the United States, most sex slaves come from South America, Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union, but even vulnerable Americans are drawn into this sometimes lethal trade.
Chris Bohjalian has often gone to the well of current social issues for his plots — e.g., “Midwives” (midwifery), “Before You Know Kindness” (animal rights). If he doesn’t exactly rip his stories from the headlines, he cuts them with care and studies his subjects thoroughly. In “The Guest Room,” Bohjalian’s newest, we learn a great deal about human trafficking, and for those who value the well-researched novel, the author’s 18th book will please.
Richard Chapman, good husband, father and investment banker, offers to let his brother hold his bachelor party at his regal Tudor in Bronxville, N.Y. Before the event, Richard’s biggest worry is that a dancing stripper and a few drunken men might mess up his living room. After the party, Richard’s worries are legion: The one stripper turns out to be two prostitutes; the party-goers have sex with them in various rooms; his home is wrecked; and two Russian bodyguards lie dead on the floor. Adding to his anxieties is his brief encounter with one of the prostitutes. Still worse, and the focus of Bohjalian’s novel, is that the two young women, both of whom have to flee for their lives, are captives in a Russian sex-slave ring.
The author has given prostitute Alexandra her own voice. In her sections — the only ones written in the first person — we hear of the tragic, all-too-common trajectory from innocence to slavery. Her tale is the most affecting of the primary stories (Richard’s and his wife’s being the other two). It starts with Alexandra’s love of ballet in Yerevan, Armenia, where she lives with her mother and grandmother. When her mother dies, the young girl is bereft, and her grandmother can’t take care of her. Her mother’s boss promises her training with a special teacher of ballet in Moscow, even hinting at a position with the Moscow Ballet. The girl naively boards an Aeroflot jet, but she swiftly learns her future when she is confined to a small bedroom, raped and trained to offer men a menu of sexual gratification. She is only 15.
By the time Alexandra reaches New York, all innocence is gone, and she wants only to meet one of the bachelors of the eponymous TV series. While on the job in Bronxville, she instead meets Richard, who extends an ear and his attention. Despite the terrible risks involved, Alexandra wants to see him again.
Richard, however, does not want to see Alexandra again, though he can’t keep himself from remembering his lustful moments with her. His growing dread is palpable as he prepares to meet with his wife, Kristin, deal with the police and explain the events to his 9-year-old daughter. Richard’s problems, with their attendant complications, give “The Guest Room” an edge-of-the-seat momentum that propels the reader straight to the last page.
The state of Richard’s formerly happy marriage becomes a delicate dance of forgiveness and recrimination that also needs a resolution. Did Richard have sex? Can Kristin find it in her heart to take him back? Will his daughter understand? Can Richard forgive himself for his lust and stupidity, the latter being, in this reader’s opinion, his only crime? (Who in his right mind would allow a bachelor party with a stripper in his own living room?)
Unfortunately, “The Guest Room” reads like an X-rated episode of “Law & Order.” Fortunately, the episode is a good one. There’s the party in the upscale home that goes rogue; the emotionally flayed wife; the guilt-ridden husband; and the tall, scholarly detective we trust will get to the bottom of this case.
There are few perfect novels, and Bohjalian’s newest isn’t one of them. But for readers who can stomach the sad and ugly subject, “The Guest Room” promises to enlighten and entertain.
Anita Shreve’s latest novel is “Stella Bain.”
©2016, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers GroupWAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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