“Richard Chapman presumed there would be a stripper at his brother Philip’s bachelor party.”
Richard, we soon find out — we find it out in the same paragraph, in fact — is a family man with a nice home and a good job (working in mergers and acquisitions). But Richard has been asked to host this bachelor party, and although he isn’t “especially wild about the idea of an exotic dancer in his family’s living room,” he also doesn’t want to be a “prig” and “put a damper” on things. There’s a sort of unspoken agreement all around that men must engage in one last night of debauchery before they get married, and that it’s the duty of other men to help them do it. So his wife takes their little girl away for the weekend, and Richard gets ready for the party.
By the time it’s over, two men are dead, two girls are on the run, and Richard Chapman’s quiet, comfortable life is shattered.
“The Guest Room” tells a devastating story that raises some uncomfortable questions. It forces us to look at our own casual, unthinking attitudes about sexuality, and it asks us to explore how they shape our behavior. It asks how those casual, unthinking attitudes affect other lives as well as our own. It asks us to consider whether we can really keep the darkest parts of our lives separate from the things that matter most to us. It explores the blurriness of the line between watching depravity and joining in.
Bohjalian goes back and forth in time, describing both the aftermath of that fatal night and the events that led up to it. The narrative shifts among Richard’s story; his wife, Kristin’s, story; and the story of Alexandra, one of the strippers at the party that night. Each of them, in its own way, is deeply jarring.
Alexandra, a young woman from Armenia, narrates her own part of the story, giving us a firsthand look at the long and tortuous route that brought her to New York and that bachelor party. As a girl she was ambitious and hardworking, longing to be a ballerina. After she was orphaned at 15, her mother’s boss told her he would send her to a prestigious ballet school in Moscow. Instead, he had her abducted, raped, and taken to the brothel that would be her home for the next several years. Alexandra isn’t even her real name. Her real name, Anahit, was taken from her, just like everything else.
Alexandra’s and Richard’s lives collide at the bachelor party in ways that leave Richard stricken with shame. The party starts to degenerate into something very different as the men discover that the strippers are more than strippers — they’ll do anything they’re asked to do. And then for no reason that Richard can understand, he finds himself in the guest room with this girl, both of them undressed:
“He ran his own hands along the skin of her thighs and felt the goose bumps. Her skin was smooth and tight, but all he could sense was the reality that the poor thing was cold. And instantly he had taken a step back.
“As drunk as he was, there was still some small part of his temporal lobe that recalled he was married. That recalled he was a father.
“As drunk as he was, he realized that this had all gone too far.”
This is true in more ways than he can fathom. When Alexandra’s friend and fellow stripper Sonja murders their Russian guards in an act of desperation and vengeance, and the two young women bolt into the night, there is no way to keep the story secret. The news gets out, and Richard’s house becomes a crime scene. His marriage and his job are in jeopardy, and — perhaps worst of all — his nine-year-old daughter, Melissa, understands just enough of what’s going on to be furious with him.
He doesn’t yet know that the decision he made in the guest room, the realization that he could not betray his marriage for a moment of pleasure, had a profound effect on Alexandra. That muddled, split-second decision to do the right thing changes both their lives, offering them both a chance at redemption — though the cost will be staggeringly high.
Bohjalian’s characters haunted me for days after I closed the book. Their story makes it clear just what it does to us to live in a society that celebrates permissiveness, instant gratification, and living in the moment. Richard’s view of himself and his life is forever altered when he realizes that he almost had sex with a stranger simply because he was offered the opportunity — and altered even further when it’s brought home to him that the young woman in his guest room was a slave. He can hardly stand to be with his brother, Philip, and the other guys who were at the party; despite the horrific way it ended, they’re still enthusing over what went on before.
“It was like f—ing a porn star — but real!” Philip exclaims about his time with Sonja, just minutes after mentioning that his fiancee is so angry with him about that night that she may call off the wedding. It’s as if he’s reached a man’s ultimate goal in life and has no concept of anything better. As for Richard, who started out rationalizing it all — “he told himself the entertainment would be some girl from Sarah Lawrence or Fordham or NYU . . . who understood intellectually the cultural politics of stripping and viewed herself as a feminist capitalist” — he can rationalize no longer. Now, all he can think is “[Alexandra] was just a kid. It just wasn’t fair.”
Though it doesn’t preach or moralize, the story brings home again and again the ways in which every choice we make, every unthinking action whether large or small, influences the lives around us. The moral bankruptcy of our culture is inescapable in its pages. When Alexandra tells us that she and her friends watched “The Bachelor” and the Kardashians as a kind of escape from their lives as sex slaves, the reader hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.
When “The Bachelor” is the best we have to offer, when strippers at bachelor parties are seen as as a normal and even healthy thing — how many times have we seen this mentality on sitcoms and even on family shows? — when our whole culture is obsessed with sexual gratification, we have a lot to learn, and a lot more to unlearn. What seems like a little harmless fun isn’t just unhealthy for ourselves. It may be a matter of life and death for others.
“The Guest Room” is a mainstream novel, and in keeping with its subject matter, it contains profanity, sexual scenes, and moments of intense violence. More than that, it’s filled with details that aren’t explicit but that linger unpleasantly in the memory — as when Alexandra matter-of-factly explains that some of the girls are dressed to look older but others to look very young indeed, for the men whose tastes run in that direction. Or the moment that Kristin, finally allowed back in the house after the police are finished with it, is horrified to find a used condom from the party in her little girl’s bedroom.
As I implied before, this is not an easy read. But it is a well-crafted story with some incredibly important things to tell us about ourselves, if we can bear to listen.
Image copyright Doubleday. Review copy purchased from Barnes & Noble.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.