I was excited to read this novel about Budapest by Jessica Keener. Annie and Will are a young American couple who take a leap of faith and move to Budapest with their infant child. Will has a business venture which he’s struggling to get off the ground, and Annie is wrestling with her doubts about living in a city where she doesn’t feel welcome.
Keener’s book focuses overwhelmingly on the negative aspects of the city, which bothered me. My husband and I went to Budapest about five years ago and I found it a fascinating city. At first when we arrived in Budapest, it seemed dirty and unappealing, a large industrial city with a strong Russian influence. But over a few days we came to see the beauty there as well, with its Art Nouveau architecture, the Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda Castle, Parliament on the Danube, the liberty statue, and one of the largest Jewish synagogues in Europe.
Budapest certainly has a troubling history – this was clear from our afternoon in Budapest’s Museum of Terror, which describes the Nazi and Russian occupations. And as my husband pointed out, we visited in 2011, but this book takes place in 1995, only four years after the end of Russian occupation. So if the city felt somewhat dark to us in 2011, it must have been considerably darker in 1995.
When she first came to Budapest, she couldn’t comprehend Hungary’s widespread commemoration of battles lost. Slowly, she was beginning to understand that the country needed to celebrate courage, the simple yet monumental act of standing up for a belief, regardless of the outcome.
Keener describes Budapest as a dark cloud that hovers over Annie and Will. We hear several times how closed-minded and unwelcoming the people seem to be, holding the view that Americans are just another occupier of Hungary, like the Germans and the Russians.
Where were the informers – the “bricks,” as Will had informed her they were called? How many of them were like her super, hiding behind innocuous jobs, living with vectors of those dark days circling inside their heads with no place to escape except inward, into the caverns of the mind. It was madness.
Annie, who needs something productive to do, becomes obsessed with an elderly man they meet through their Hungarian neighbors. Edward isn’t well, and he’s grieving for his daughter, who died recently of an overdose of medication for her multiple sclerosis. Edward believes her husband murdered her. Annie wants to help, and he gradually draws her into his bitterness and need for revenge.
It’s an interesting and suspenseful story, but I did find Keener’s writing repetitive. I wanted to see and understand more about Budapest than I got in this story. I’m fascinated by what it’s like to live in another country, and Keener starts down this path but doesn’t explore it fully. Her characters get caught up instead in Will’s friend Bernardo’s business dealings and Edward’s obsession with the man who murdered his daughter, storylines that have nothing to do with Budapest itself.
There are character problems as well. Stephen and Will are never well-developed. Annie’s judgment is frequently questionable (for example, her attempts to help Romany children are well-meant but misguided, and she has doubts about Edward but lies to her husband about helping him).
One other thing about Keener’s writing was distracting: the way she describes women. Every time she introduces a female character, we learn their breast size. This includes Edward describing his own daughter (“he saw her wearing a loosely fitting man-tailored shirt to cover her large breasts, breasts like her mother’s, his Sylvia.”) Ugh. Or this one: “Annie knew that Eileen was athletic, muscular, and held her big breasts proudly, and how she admired his wife for that. She carried her breasts like trophies.” Or “His wife possessed an innate charisma and big smile like her husband. She had huge breasts, too. No women could beat that.” Even a minor character, only seen in one chapter, is characterized by her breast size. If this book was written by a man, I’d probably have tossed it. Coming from a female writer, I found it puzzling and annoying.
If you’re looking for historical fiction about Hungary during World War II, I highly recommend Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge. Keener’s novel is an interesting look at Budapest in the 1990’s, but I’m not sure how balanced a look it is.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from NetGalley and publisher Algonquin Books. This book was published November 14, 2017.