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Strangers in Budapest


Strangers in Budapest

I will be honest (as always, of course) and tell you that STRANGERS IN BUDAPEST is my first encounter with Jessica Keener. After reading this worthy book, it won’t be the last. Keener is the commercially and critically acclaimed author of the novel NIGHT SWIM, as well as WOMEN IN BED, an award-winning short story collection. Her latest effort is somewhat different from those works, but shares common themes while injecting an element of suspense into the proceedings.

Set in 1995, the story introduces Annie and Will Gordon approximately eight months after they have moved from Boston to Budapest to start up a business. As we encounter them, they are on a walking journey through the city with their adopted infant son, Leo, on an errand of mercy. It’s a wellness check that they’re doing on behalf of their neighbors in Boston, who own a flat in Budapest and are worried about their tenant, an elderly gentleman named Edward Weiss. That concern is not misplaced. When Annie and Will first encounter Weiss, he appears to be a bit of a crusty customer, in poor health and prone to mood swings. The only warmth he exhibits is toward Leo, and even that is dolloped out intermittently and sparingly. He sends Annie and Will on their way after cautioning them not to tell anyone of his presence in the city.

"Fans of slow-burn suspense novels, who also enjoy fish-out-of-water situations, will find much to love here."

It turns out that Weiss has an interesting history. An American veteran of World War II, he has emotional ties to Hungary as he helped free Hungarian Jews from a Nazi prison camp. He is presently in Budapest seeking his former son-in-law, Van Howard, whom he blames for the death of his daughter, Deborah. All he knows is that Howard is living in the city, somewhere near water. Annie is compassionate, possibly too much so, and wants to assist Weiss in finding Howard, but Will is dead set against it. He has his reasons, given that his grand design for a communications network based in Hungary is perhaps a bit too groundbreaking in and for a country where things move slowly, if at all, and whose inhabitants are suspicious of change in general and Americans in particular.

Things bubble along slowly in STRANGERS IN BUDAPEST, but that does not mean there is an absence of occurrences. The story is as much about what Annie and Will experience as the reader comes to a realization (long before these protagonists do) that their actions are impulsive and perhaps not well thought out. Keener does a masterful job of showing, without telling, how both of them, in different ways, bump up against a culture where everyone seems to have a rulebook except them. Annie, meanwhile, attempts to assist Weiss --- notwithstanding Will’s reticence --- and eventually realizes (long after the reader does) that she is actually much closer to holding the key to Weiss’ quest than either of them might suspect. The conclusion comes rather rapidly, but not before kismet manifests itself on more than one occasion. And while the book does not wrap up entirely neatly, everything is as it should be, at least to some degree.

STRANGERS IN BUDAPEST does not lend itself to easy categorization. Fans of slow-burn suspense novels, who also enjoy fish-out-of-water situations, will find much to love here. Will’s inability to navigate the waters of Budapest’s economy is especially interesting, where his “can-do” attitude bumps up against a worldview in which everything is “impossible” even when it isn’t. Those looking for a thriller that brings things down a notch from the standard fare currently available need seek no further.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 22, 2017

Strangers in Budapest
by Jessica Keener