Thursday, January 25, 2018

Strangers in Budapest

Title:  Strangers in Budapest
Author:  Jessica Keener
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1616204974 / 978-1616204976

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She'd grown used to called the Danube by its Hungarian name - Duna."

Favorite Quote:  "What she did know was that ... all those lives shattered on European shores during and after the wars, and on an asphalt driveway in America - those lives whose truths had disappeared into a vault of eternity beyond her reach - were not gone or silenced. She could hear them calling."

Annie suffers from "trailing-spouse syndrome."  What, you might ask, is that? I know I did. Apparently, it is the name given to the experience of a spouse who follows his/her partner to another city or another country because of a job. It is usually used in the context of an individual working in an expatriate assignment.

Annie would not describe herself as a trailing spouse. She feels that she and her husband Will made the choice together to pursue business opportunities in Hungary. They have personal and professional reasons to leave their Boston home. With the fall of communism in 1989, the 1990s in Hungary are a time of capital potential. Will has grand ideas; the question is whether any of the them will pan out.

Unfortunately, Annie is not involved actively in the actual business, leaving her with a lot of time on her hands. She does not mix much with the other expatriate wives; she is looking for what she feels is a more immersive experience. She is focused on her infant son; yet, most descriptions are those of leaving him with a babysitter. Her actions do not seems to match her loftier opinion of herself. She sadly comes across as a snob.

For example, one thing that rankles in this book is the way Annie describes the adoption process. Annie and Will are parents to an adopted infant son. One of the stated reasons for them leaving Boston is the supposed continual intrusion of the adoptive services into their lives. It just seems an odd note into the book. It also does not develop into a plot line; so, it seems unnecessary. The adoption process, while not perfect, creates families. Why cast it in such a negative light when neither the child not the process is the actual story?

Annie's imagination is finally captured when a neighbor from the US asks her to check on an gentleman who has recently come to Budapest. He is elderly and ill and perhaps in need of assistance. Annie cannot help but get involved. The story gets complicated when it appears that Edward Weiss is in Hungary for revenge for his daughter's death. He pursues the man he considers her murderer. Although there is no connection between Annie and the Edward, she decides to help him. Really?

The story gets more complicated when Annie and Will's story intersects with Edward's story in more ways than they thought. Unfortunately, for its complications, the book never quite comes together. Annie and Will are rather one dimensional in their pursuit of economic success. Edward Weiss is single-minded in his need for revenge. Other characters that could have provided depth are not developed at all. Annie's family has a back story, but that too is never fully developed. The ending, the supposed climactic conclusion, just feels flat. Because the interest in the characters doesn't develop, neither does the interest in plot.

Aside from the plot, my reason for picking the book is the setting - Budapest at the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, from Annie's perspective, I don't really get a sense of the place. Annie is centered on her life and her child. The book really could have been set anywhere and been the same story.

One of my favorite things about fiction set in varied locations is the inspiration it provides for me to research the actual place; sadly, I find no such inspiration in this book. I feel that I know as little about Budapest after reading the book as I did before reading the book, and there goes my last reason for reading this book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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