The Guest Room (2016) by Chris Bohjalian Review
The Guest Room begins with Richard’s brother’s bachelor party. No sooner is it revealed that there is a certain amount of debauchery involved. Kristin Chapman, Richard’s wife, begrudgingly agrees to let her husband join the party, leaving their Westchester home with their young daughter for the men to enjoy the evening. Richard thought that the party would be cheap entertainment, but he did not expect what actually happened: bacchanalian drunkenness, a dangerously intimate moment with a stripper in the guest room, and two dead Russian bodyguards in his living room.
The Guest Room is a novel that never seems to hit its stride. Or at least, it doesn’t really know what its stride is supposed to be. It tries many things, the opening chapters already a burst of possibly interesting ideas: the stilted, glamorous shame of scandal presented through debauchery, legal thriller fun, and more than a handful of subplots for the characters in this novel. The read never really commits to any of them except for the shame of scandal, so it feels like it’s drifting aimless through various, disconnected portions of this one incident, never deciding where it wants to dip its feet into. If it wanted to focus on the scandal issue, then it could’ve expanded the subject matter without delving into unnecessary subplots. The dramatic payoff at the end was quite emotional, but for a short read it takes the book to find its momentum because of the numerous ideas it presented. The other ideas could’ve been cut for a more compact, fast paced read.
The novel is really good at depicting the mess that overwhelms Richard and his family after the incident, but lacks the follow through to turn that mess into something more. It sets up a lot of problems but hardly resolves any. This is especially fitting to Alexandra, one of the strippers, who has been presented a sordidly horrifying past, but never really fixing any of it. This would not be a problem if the book exhibited a deeper understanding of the character in the middle of this mess, but the book is weirdly more interested in all the stuff surrounding her. There comes a point when the novel, struggling to bring things to a thematic close, seems to just have another character awkwardly spell out all the woes the main character is facing. It then stumbles into a resolution, not properly tying loose threads.
What disappointed me most was the mystery/legal thriller aspect. It’s easy for one to guess where the ending headed, who did what and what really happened. The novel focused more on the psychological effect this had on the family, but that wasn’t done greatly either because of the messy ideas. Taken in isolation, a lot of this novel is actually entertaining. It isn’t what it sets out to be, but it’s still gripping in terms of what happens next (although I predicted it) and the writing style always keeps things readable. This novel truly had potential, but it just focused on the wrong things.
Having that said, The Guest Room is deeply unsatisfying. It just feels too messy, too undercooked. It is a character sketch at best, the novel taking into the account the lives of every character after the unfortunate incident. Unfortunately, it feels like a first draft, the book bursting at the seams with interesting ideas but feeling incoherent once the read finishes. It’s like Bohjalian had a fantastic idea in his head, but he never properly plotted it out thoroughly, immediately writing without thinking of what it wanted to focus on. The book is certainly entertaining at parts, but as a whole, it just feels like one big disappointing mess.