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Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener

BOTTOM LINE: An odd novel in which everyone loses, including Budapest

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 14 November 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Budapest: gorgeous city of secrets, with ties to a shadowy, bloody past. It is to this enigmatic European capital that a young American couple, Annie and Will, move from Boston with their infant son shortly after the fall of the Communist regime. For Annie, it is an effort to escape the ghosts that haunt her past, and Will wants simply to seize the chance to build a new future for his family.

Eight months after their move, their efforts to assimilate are thrown into turmoil when they receive a message from friends in the US asking that they check up on an elderly man, a fiercely independent Jewish American WWII veteran who helped free Hungarian Jews from a Nazi prison camp. They soon learn that the man, Edward Weiss, has come to Hungary to exact revenge on someone he is convinced seduced, married, and then murdered his daughter.

Annie, unable to resist anyone’s call for help, recklessly joins in the old man’s plan to track down his former son-in-law and confront him, while Will, pragmatic and cautious by nature, insists they have nothing to do with Weiss and his vendetta. What Annie does not anticipate is that in helping Edward she will become enmeshed in a dark and deadly conflict that will end in tragedy and a stunning loss of innocence.

Atmospheric and surprising, Strangers in Budapest is, as bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt says, a ‘dazzlingly original tale about home, loss, and the persistence of love.'”

My Thoughts: Usually, being worldly and having traveled to other locations is a good thing. It allows you to learn more about other cultures, absorb history outside of textbooks, and expand your horizons. However, there are times when having traveled has its drawbacks, like when what you know from firsthand experience does not mirror what authors put into their novels. Not only does it ruin the reading experience for you, it sets a somewhat dangerous precedent for future readers as they will go on to assume the author has done his or her due diligence and is a subject matter expert. This is where I find myself upon reading Jessica Keener’s Strangers in Budapest.

Set in 1995 Budapest, the story is about an expat couple that gets involved in a stranger’s personal business. The story itself is odd. There is nothing connecting the stranger to the couple other than an old neighbor and a large amount of coincidences. That this young mother would involve herself in someone else’s business is laudable but still strange, especially as her son is so young. My problems with the story involve more than the plot, even though I do find it problematic. My problems involve Annie’s behavior and how Ms. Keener chooses to portray Budapest.

First, let me address my problems with Annie. She does not want to get to know other expat women because she does not want to limit her circle, but she has no other friends outside of her husband. In that regard, she is a snob, looking down on other Americans spending their time together and thinking herself better than them because she is trying to immerse herself in the environment. I understand wanting the immersion but thinking yourself better than your fellow citizens is pretty rude and lacking in self-awareness. Then she gets involved in this old man’s vendetta, which is understandable only given how bored she is even though that is a poor excuse. Lastly, as much as she professes to love her son and adore him (and even obsessively worries about her adoption case handler coming over from the US to tell her the adoption is fake), she is almost never with her son. Most of her interactions involve her leaving him with the babysitter and going off by herself or with her husband. Her thoughts are at odds with her actions, and the frequency with which she left her son with the sitter began to anger me. I never took to Annie as a character, so I might have been projecting my dislike to her actions. Still, when you are looking for reasons to dislike a character even more than you already do, the character is probably not a well-written one.

My biggest issue with the story however is not the character but rather Budapest 1995 as Ms. Keener imagines it. Let me tell you, the Budapest in the novel is not real-life Budapest. The Budapest Ms. Keener describes is very modern and very Western. She mentions some of the Soviet buildings, the cars, and the general air of secrecy, but to me, the mentions are more of an afterthought. Anyone who has traveled to a formerly communist Eastern European country within the last decade knows that the influence of the Soviet regime is still there in some form or another. And we are talking about two to three decades after it all fell apart for the Soviets. In 1995, the influence of the Soviet regime would still be prevalent, not an afterthought. It would appear in every person’s actions and reactions and would be felt in every aspect of the culture. Ms. Keener’s few mentions hide or ignore what was the single-most influence on that region and one that was not swept away in the course of four years.

If this was not enough of a detraction to an already mediocre story, the appearance and usage of the cell phone was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Ms. Keener has Annie and almost all of the other characters use cell phones as they go about their business in Budapest in 1995. Folks, I lived in Europe in 1998, and I know that while cell phones were a lot more popular in Europe than they were in the United States at that time they were still not the dominating method of communication. I also know that in 1995, cell phone usage was still not a popular thing. In fact, I tested my memory and confirmed that in the United Kingdom in 1995 only seven percent of the population was using them. If the United Kingdom had little cell phone usage in 1995, there is no way that Budapest would have had greater market penetration. The city simply did not have the money or the infrastructure to add cell phone coverage. Given that understanding and background knowledge, once Annie pulled out her cell phone and traded calls with others on their cell phones, I was done.

I am sure my focus on the inaccuracies of the setting of the novel skewed my perceptions of the overall story. However, I do struggle to understand how an author could do so little research into the setting of a novel or make a conscious choice not to make sure the details of the setting are correct. I have never really experienced this sort of thing in any novel, so I am a bit baffled by it. I worry too that other readers of Strangers in Budapest will get the wrong impression about Budapest in the mid-1990s, that they will think cell phone usage was common and that other than stinky cars and a few depressing buildings the city was the same as it is now. The history lover in me despairs at this as something I just cannot overlook. Combine that with a character who frankly drove me batty with her obsessive worries and nosy behavior, and we have a novel that I cannot say I enjoyed in any way.

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