“The Guest Room,” bestselling author Chris Bohjalian’s new novel, could be ripped from today’s headlines.
It’s the story of a bachelor party gone way, way wrong.
“Richard Chapman presumed there would be a stripper at his brother Philip’s bachelor party. Perhaps if he had actually thought about it, he might even have expected two,” the novel begins. It takes off like a shot from there:
“There were supposed to be no videos of the bachelor party. One of the women’s Russian bodyguards told the men to keep their phones in their pants. . . .
So there were mostly just stories of what seems to have occurred. . . . How it went all wrong. There is only what the gentlemen, including Richard Chapman, told the police. The talent’s version? The talent was gone. And those bodyguards? They were dead.”
Investment banker Richard hosted the party in his Bronxville Tudor, while his wife Kristen and nine-year-old daughter Melissa were staying in the city with his mother-in-law. He was left with a bloody crime scene in his living room and the increasingly futile hope that his wife Kristen would believe him when he said he hadn’t had sex with one of the strippers — even though he had come dangerously close during a private moment in his guest room.
Bohjalian alternates chapters about Richard and his family with those narrated by Alexandra, one of the girls. It turns out that these weren’t just strippers. The two girls, who were on the run after murdering their guards, were sex slaves. Armenian orphan Alexandra was taken in by her mother’s boss and promised dance training in Moscow. Like her partner Sonja, she was instead kept captive and trained as a “courtesan” in Moscow, eventually coming to New York, where they were quite literally the slaves of their gangster masters.
While “The Guest Room” reads like a thriller, in Bohjalian’s skilled hands it also reads as a stunning meditation on shame and scandal — and on issues of trust and forgiveness that can make or break even a long-term ostensibly happy marriage. After the police kick the Chapmans out of their crime scene home, Kristen banishes him to a hotel, while she and her daughter stay on with her mother.
“He put down his phone and gazed out the window at Times Square. His room was on the eighteenth floor. He decided he would give almost anything to go back in time. Two days. That was all he wanted. Even a day and a half. Down there somewhere were strip clubs, which instantly made him think of Alexandra. Of strippers and escorts and sex slaves. He recalled the girl’s eyes when she kissed him. It was going to be years, he feared, before he would find a way to forgive himself.”
Bohjalian deftly raises questions about the global problem of human trafficking by making Alexandra an increasingly reliable and sympathetic narrator as the book races along. Two men were killed — but Alexandra and Sonja were no less victims themselves.
As Richard’s life falls apart and Alexandra and Sonja run for their lives, “The Guest Room” builds to a shattering — and unexpected — conclusion. This is a masterfully told, compulsively readable cautionary tale..
“The Guest Room” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.