In a burst of reading energy at the end on the year, I was able to read two wonderful January releases: The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian and The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. I read The Guest Room in audio and The Swans of Fifth Avenue in print. That I read them concurrently was kismet. Both novels were engrossing, but Swans was a delicious relief when The Guest Room was particularly challenging. I highly recommend them both, separately or in tandem. Here are more specific thoughts on each:
The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian
This novel begins with a bachelor party held at the home of Richard Chapman and his wife, Kristin. Richard’s brother is getting married and the hope was that by hosting the party at his home, Richard could keep the celebration from getting out of hand. They both assumed there would be a stripper, but they had absolutely no idea what they were getting themselves into when the brother’s friend took it upon himself to hires not one, but two strippers. These women, who may or may not have been of age, were trafficked into the United States from Eastern Europe and were not working as strippers, as Richard and Kristin had hoped, to pay off college. When things go wrong, the lives of everyone involved are thrown into chaos. The story follows Richard and Kristin and the toll one night can take on their marriage, family, and professional lives. It also follows Alexandra, the story of how she became a sex slave, and what happens to the girls at the end of that fateful night.
While The Guest Room can be hard to read, especially as Alexandra recounts her childhood, kidnap, and journey to the United States, it’s such an important look at both our society and our world. For me personally, it opened my eyes to my own privilege and to how much I assume about the strangers I interact with or hire for specific services. The connection between the girls hired for that bachelor party and their situation in life might be easier to see or to consider, but I blanketly assume that everyone I interact with is doing so voluntarily. After all, I’m working and engaging in commerce voluntarily, right? I think of myself as an observant person, but there is so much that I don’t see because I’m not looking. This novel was very much a call to action for me.
Both Mozhan Marno and Grace Experience, the narrators of this audiobook, were new to me narrators. They both fit very well in their role. Marno told this story from the viewpoint of both Richard and Kristin and was well suited for both roles. I especially enjoyed her work on the sleazier men who attended the bachelor party. Chris Bohjalian certainly wrote some really good hate-worthy characters. Experience was outstanding as Alexandra. She fully embodied Alexandra, bringing her and her life into my car with me. I often find audiobooks more difficult than print when it comes to this kind of content, but, as with The Guest Room, it’s also more rewarding.
As an added bonus, Chris Bohjalian wrote a little about Alexandra’s life in New York City in a short story called, “Nothing Very Bad Could Happen To Your There.” You can get a copy of the PDF here. Enjoy!
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
The Swans of Fifth Avenue begins with Truman Capote, proud as a rooster over the success of In Cold Blood, entertaining the five most glamorous and sought after socialites of New York City at La Côte Basque restaurant. He calls them his swans and, while they are amused by him, they can’t agree how this funny little man became part of their inner circle. They argue over who introduced him first. He gives them each selective bits and pieces of himself or the self he’d like to portray, letting them all privately believe that she was his best swan. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Babe Paley is Truman’s favorite. The trouble the swans get into is opening up their lives to an outsider author who is becoming increasingly desperate to recreate the glory of In Cold Blood.
There is something downright fun about reading a novel full of high society and gossip. Knowing that there is going to be a terrible collision down the road makes the ride that much more exciting. I’ve previously read the novel Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers and Swans picks up where it left off. Capote found the fame he desired and delighted in each and every moment. What he hadn’t counted on was the cost of maintaining it. On the other side of the coin, Babe had the fame Capote lusted after. She was born and raised for it. Her dream was the desire to connect with another person deeply and to be understood beyond her superficial status. Truman’s charm and warmth provided her that and it set them both upon a slippery slope. While I called Truman many names throughout the novel, I empathized with them both. This didn’t stop me from enjoying their journey over the edge of the cliff.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue made my Christmas break entertaining and relaxing. I was drawn into Melanie Benjamin’s story from the very beginning and I found the ending to be wholly satisfying. This would be a great book to have by your side during a blizzard or a lazy Saturday morning.
This novel also has an added bonus. Benjamin wrote a short story prequel to The Swans of Ffth Avenue called “Reckless Hearts.” It features Swan Slim Hawks Hayward and Ernest Hemingway. I listened to this story in audio and enjoyed every second. It is narrated (as is the novel) by the lovely and talented Cassandra Campbell. Listening will be the best couple of bucks you spend all year. It doesn’t matter in which order you read them. “Reckless Hearts” takes place first chronologically, but I listened to it while reading Swans. It’s all good.