Strangers in Budapest: A Novel by Jessica Keener
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
*I received a copy for review through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*
What drew me to this book was my personal connection to Hungary. Having family there, living there and visiting several times (coincidently during the period this story takes place) are all reasons I was eager to read this book. Although these connections contributed to my enjoyment of the book and high rating, I think that there is plenty to enjoy in the atmosphere and characters of the book.
Annie is a bleeding heart American living in Budapest with her entrepreneur husband Will. Although they have a baby, he spends much of time with a nanny which allows Annie to spend her time ruminating. Both elements can feel contrived but instead I think they provide a chance for the reader to brush up against what can feel indifferent about Hungarians. Annie isn’t just other because of her Americanness, she is set apart from the other Americans she encounters in Hungary as well. Her will to care and empathize allows us access to a story we could otherwise not have been part of. In another story I would not have been drawn to her but I loved the way she allowed the reader to be face to face with Budapest, Hungary, Hungarians and Roma (it isn’t well explored but I thought the author touched upon the nuances of the Hungarian perspective of the gypsies). Annie does not in fact fit well into the country and she spends much of her time with other Americans or completely on the outside looking in at the Roma with the eyes of an outsider. I think it is possible to say, without spoiling the plot, that Annie’s outsider status and her choices as they relate to how she spends her time tells another story beyond the main plot line. Which is to say that Jessica Keener replicates the expatriate experience for the reader. She touches on something even more interesting (why Hungary is at once compelling despite being so difficult) but she could have explored it further.
I wouldn’t say that I was satisfied with the ending but it is a very atmospheric book. There were many things I liked about the book. I think Keener had a decent focus on the main plot and tried to explore the history and culture of Hungary a little on the way. For me, I think I would have enjoyed a longer book that expanded further on some of the side threads. It would have been a bit less commercial but there were certainly some insights that I would have loved to explore further. It’s an excellent read if you enjoy character studies and exploring places via meandering stories. I do.
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