The Guest Room

Originally published February 2016

Once you’ve left the hallowed halls of education—the ones that when within, you read for points rather than pleasure, you’ll either continue to read because you always enjoyed it, or you’ll find entertainment elsewhere. Maybe both.

I, for example, am going all in on the Westminster Dog Show tonight. Don’t judge.

However, as entertaining as a book may be, many book lovers still crave meaning out of a good novel.

  • Did the story move me?
  • Was I so thoroughly engrossed that my family may not recognize me when I put the book down?
  • Did I learn something new?

Sometimes, the answer is easy. There are books that will make an immediate impact, never to leave a shelf within your heart.

Then there are others—where you think to yourself, “What was the point?” You enjoyed the book, you’d recommend it, but you’re still wondering what it all means.

With Chris Bohhjalian’s latest, “The Guest Room,” I spent some time pondering, for sure.

One of my favorite contemporary authors, Bohjalian does a superb job mixing up his literary genres, styles and constructs from book to book. Some are historical fiction, some are whodunits and still others are straight up thriller. (I forever remain both pissed and exhilarated at the ending of “The Night Strangers.”) The thread that connects his work, for me, though, is its meditations on family. And with “The Guest Room” there’s plenty to think about.

Richard Chapman is a man who has it all—the beautiful suburban home outside NYC, beautiful wife, young daughter, and is a rising star within his investment firm.

He also has an asshat for a brother, Phillip. And it’s his begrudging willingness to host his brother’s bachelor party that results in the complete upheaval of everything he is—as a husband, father, brother, employee and in general, as a human being.

Let’s just say the party didn’t end well. There was “an incident.” And sadly, it wasn’t as simple as a wife walking in on a stripper. That doesn’t happen until the end of the book.

So goes the rest of the novel, as we watch Richard try to put his life back together, his wife Kristin try to reconcile the actions of her husband at the party with what she thought to be true about the man she loves, a 10-year-old girl try to understand the complexities of her parents’ marriage and a 19-year-old orphan try to explain how she ended up in Richard’s living room as a sex slave instead of on stage in Moscow as a premier ballerina.

There were a couple of plot lines I felt could have been explored a bit further—Richard’s relationship with Phillip, and the purpose of his attorney, Dina. With her initial introduction, I felt as if she was going to play a pivotal role and then was somehow edited down to a bit player with little impact.

For me, the meaning of this story came down to what Richard wanted so very badly—to be able to go back in time and make a different choice. To right a wrong he never intended. Have you ever done or said something you just can’t undo but so wish you could? Richard’s reconciliation comes at a cost, and is a stark reminder of the consequences when perhaps we don’t listen to our better angels.

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