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Notables–“Room” and “Next”

I kicked off July with two novels from the Notable Books List–“Room” by Emma Donoghue and “Next” by James Hynes.

“Room” is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old who has spent his life with only his mother in one room, actually a storage shed converted to a living space. She was kidnapped several years before by “Old Nick” who still visits her regularly for sex (while Jack is tucked away in the wardrobe), and to deliver food, clothes, and other necessary items. She has raised Jack to believe that their room is pretty much the whole world. He’s beginning to ask questions, and she realizes that the charade must end. Spoiler alert–Jack escapes.

I was reminded of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” as I read this due to Jack’s distinctive sensibility and voice. He doesn’t have concepts for talking with others, for vehicles in motion, for navigating in a world full of people. He reveals his mother’s courage and cleverness in protecting and nurturing him. He does his best to understand what’s happening, especially in the media frenzy surrounding his and his mother’s escape. In some ways, using Jack as the narrator is genius. In others, it limits the depth of the telling. Ultimately, even though it’s a fine novel, I don’t believe it lives up to its promise.

Even so, I think this will have a lot of play among book groups–there are nearly infinite discussion possibilities.

I’m adding it to my mental list of novels with great set-ups that don’t quite live up to their potential.

On the other hand, “Next” by James Hynes had me almost quitting in the middle, only to have the story take a sharp (and sharply effective) turn in the middle, leading to an engrossing second half.

I would have said that it was narrated by its protagonist, Kevin, but looking back, I see that an unknown narrator is at work here. The story happens all in one day. Kevin is on a plane landing in Austin, Texas, where he has a job interview. He hasn’t told his girlfriend in Ann Arbor that he’s seeking such a move. He becomes obsessed with the attracive young woman who sits next to him on the plane, and thus begins his series of reveries on old girlfriends, sex, and how he’s ended up where he is, a 50-year-old in good physical shape, but emotionally unattached. He ends up following this young woman throughout downtown Austin, until an accident on the sidewalk knocks him out, and she disappears.

Then, an interlude with a woman who rescues him, patches up his minor injuries, takes him to the store to replace his torn clothes, and then engages in an emotionally revealing conversation over lunch.

He arrives for his interview, and a terroristic event, something foreshadowed throughout, actually happens. Kevin is left with only his wits and will to live. His reveries move from sex to his family, especially to death, and to how he hasn’t lived up generally. And then there’s what’s next….

I LOVE a novel with a second half that exceeds the first.

This is almost a tailor-made book group book, as long as the group is cool with sexually graphic descriptions, and ongoing sexual thoughts.

I’ll recommend this to general fiction readers–Hynes  packs an awful lot in to this one day. As an added bonus, one of my reading friends noted that one of the sex scenes in this book was named the best sex scene in a book this year by

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