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1st November
2010
written by Steph

Room is one of those books that set the book blogging world on fire. It was first released in the UK before being released Stateside, and there didn’t seem to be a single British bookblogger that I followed who didn’t review this book. Even more remarkable, everyone who read it seemed to love it! When the book hit the U.S., responses were the same – readers talked about how tense and riveting the book was, how the book urged them to keep reading and lent itself to being consumed in a single sitting. I couldn’t remember the last book that made me want to devour it in an 8 to 10-hour reading jag, so I was so excited to get my hands on this one. Of course, so were about 100 other patrons at my local library, so it wasn’t until about a week ago that I finally got the chance to sit down with Room and see what the fuss was all about. I’m sure anyone reading this has already heard of the book, so giving a short summary is probably pretty redundant, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock (or in Room), the basic gist is that the novel is narrated by Jack, a young boy who has just turned five. Jack and his mother live in a single-room, and for Jack, this space constitutes his entire world. He has never stepped a foot outside and has no understanding that anything exists beyond Room’s four walls; the duo’s only visitor is a menacing man that Jack calls “Old Nick”.  Through Jack, we learn how it is that his mother and he came to be in Room and how they have adapted in order to survive… As well as what Jack’s mother will risk in order for them to escape their prison in the hopes of living a normal life. Based on the myriad reviews I had read as well as the fact that Room was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (I was sure it would win!), I had really high hopes for this book going in. I expected to be hooked by the sinister premise right from the start, but I actually wound up finding the first 80 pages or so painfully slow and sometimes downright boring. Sometimes I wondered if this might have been because I knew quite a bit about the framing premise going in and so for me there was no mystery as to why Jack and his mother were in Room (hence why I’ve tried to leave my above synopsis relatively vague). I simply didn’t feel like there was much tension in the early pages of the novel, and while I suppose Donoghue did ample world building, I found the first section of the novel really tedious. In part this could also because Donoghue writes in the voice of child and I found this quite difficult to adjust to… not just grammatically speaking, but also in terms of scope and content. So much of what Jack talks about is incredibly mundane (and I daresay, inane) that it sort of drove me crazy… There were times where I wasn’t sure if I could withstand another description of how the tv show Dora the Explorer works, or a rundown of the most recently viewed episode of Spongebob Squarepants. I found myself very impatient with the early portion of this book, and I admit there were several times when I considered putting it down and not finishing. I simply didn’t care about the characters and their plight and felt like nothing was happen. My friends Trisha and Abby urged me to stick with it, however, saying that things did pick up. They were right, and about 100 pages in, things do start to happen and the story begins to expand, but even then I have to say I was disappointed. Highlight the next spoilery portion to read why! Everything related to Jack and his mother’s escape felt really shallow and forced to me. Seeing how poorly Jack adjusts to being in the real world following his escape, it seems entirely unbelievable to me that he was able to execute the escape plan at all, or that he was able to lead the police to Room. Additionally, I thought the discussion of his adjustment to the world after the fact was done in a really superficial manner, in which many things felt glossed over. There was just a lack of depth to it all, perhaps because Jack was narrating and he’s only five, which allows for innocence but also limits the level at which the narrative can progress and be analyzed. As I said earlier, that voice of Jack really did not work for me in this novel. Some people have said they thought Donoghue really nails the voice of a young child… to which I counter that this is why we don’t normally read books written by five year olds. They aren’t very insightful, and the things they find interesting are not exactly what adults (especially those living outside of Room) will find fascinating. Part of the problem with a child narrator is that children do a lot of telling, and so there is a lot of exposition in the novel, but there isn’t much introspection, nor is there much organic development of the characters, simply because everything is circumscribed by Jack’s incredibly limited and simplified view and conceptualization of the world and people. It also really bothered me that Jack’s speech was so broken and ungrammatical at times, when there’s no reason to suggest why he would speak with such garbled syntax so frequently. His mother speaks normally and he has been exposed to television and books… It’s fine for him to speak in a simplified fashion, to make a few mistakes here and there (like saying “brung” instead of “brought”), but other elements of his speech felt forced and awkward, like they were meant to simply emphasize that he was a child. I think the idea of a child being separated from the world during his early formative years is really fascinating and has a lot of potential, but I personally felt like Donoghue didn’t bother to examine most of the really interesting ramifications of such a harrowing experience in any real way, which was a shame. It felt like Donoghue just scratched the surface of emotions and fallout of such a monumental event, and I really felt like the latter half of the book consisted of her throwing out observations without taking the time to pause and reflect on anything that was happening for the sake of keeping the plot moving. It seemed like Donoghue was capitalizing on a really scintillating, provocative premise, but then didn't actually manage to do the framework justice. I just felt like I was constantly disappointed by this book, and in the end I am incredibly apathetic about it. Nothing about it really worked for me in terms of writing, plot, or ideas (because I felt nothing was really examined in depth), so I’m honestly left wondering what everyone else saw that I so evidently do not. I just really was not impressed with this book at all; I wouldn't go so far to say that it was lazy storytelling, but I expect more when it comes to books that are nominated for big prizes like the Booker. In my mind Donoghue had a really interesting premise, and then completely failed to ask any interesting or truly difficult questions based upon it (at least in any really substantial way).  I’m afraid this one had a lot of potential that I feel it just didn’t deliver on… And so a mehcommendation it is. I appear to be the odd person out when it comes to Room so even though I kind of hated it, you should probably read it because chances are you will like it. But if you don’t, you can’t say I didn’t warn you! Rating: 2.5 out of 5

29 Comments

  1. Kathleen
    11/01/2010

    I think yours is the first negative or tepid review I’ve read of this one. I have the book and am anxious to read it and see what I think. I avoided the spoiler section (didn’t highlight) so hopefully my lack of knowledge of what happens will make the book more intriguing for me?

  2. 11/01/2010

    I worry about this book, because it seems so universally loved and we all know my history with universally loved books…

  3. I am often a victim of hype, disappointed by books that are universally loved. However, I tend to resist hype and look for flaws whilst reading. I’m not suggesting that is what you have done, Steph, as you have built a very well-constructed case why this book did not work for. I agree with some of your points; I too found it difficult to get into the narrative to begin with and Jack’s voice grated on my nerves. I also thought that the premise was for shock-value and that some of the ideas were developed superficially; I agree that many of the points could have been explored further (i.e. breast-feeding and Jack’s observations of how the outside world treat children, sometimes ignoring them completely). However, for me this wasn’t a literary book but a page-turner; it is important for me to make the distinction because books like The Room (and The Help by Kathryn Stockett) are ones I read entirely for entertainment -books that grip me entirely and that I consider addictive reading- whereas high literature fuels my appetite for something heavier and I read it more slowly to ruminate over.

  4. 11/01/2010

    I like your honesty in this review. I’ve seen a lot about this book but don’t really know much beyond the basic premise and that a lot of people love it. However, I don’t think I’d enjoy it too much for the same reasons as you, plus a couple more.

    1) To me, hearing the basic premise just seemed like a contrived formula for an “interesting literary novel,” one that of course would make lists and be a finalist for prizes (pretty much like Claire just said). It’s like this popular Broadway play I saw—David Mamet’s “Race.” Well, it’s about race; of course it’s going to incite discussion and get people talking. The subject matter pretty much made that a given, regardless of what was actually said. That’s how this book seemed to me.

    2) You mention a child being cut off in his formative years….that’s a really good point of something that could be handled in a very interesting way. But to be honest, I’d rather read real accounts of this rather than a fictional narrative told from the perspective of said child.

    It’s interesting that Claire considers this an entertaining page-turner (which, based on synopsis and both of your comments, I would probably agree), but it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Usually, those two categories don’t mix, and I wonder what the people who read it as a literary novel see in it that you guys don’t.

  5. 11/01/2010

    Oh, I am sorry that you didn’t like this one! I agree that reading things from Jack’s perspective really annoyed me for the first few sections of the book. I almost didn’t think I was going to be able to continue with it, but I did end up getting used to it. I think you made a really solid case for why the book didn’t work for you, and in some areas I agree with you. I did end up loving this book, but can totally see and agree with the above commenter that it is more of a page turner than a solid literary book.

  6. 11/01/2010

    @ Kathleen: I haven’t read any lukewarm reviews of this book either, so I was really surprised to find I did not really like it at all! Maybe this book is a bit like The Blair Witch Project and that ilk of things where the less you know going in, the more you enjoy it? I guess you’ll have to let me know!
     
    @ Amanda: I normally don’t rush out to read universally loved books when they are hot topics, but this one really sounded like it was going to be a surefire hit… I guess not! Lesson learned!
     
    @ Claire: I really thought I was going to love this book, so I don’t think I went in with intention of picking it apart, though I think I may have gone in with the wrong expectations. Perhaps – as Kari mentions in her comment – I expected this book to be far more literary (especially when it got the Booker short-list nod) than it really was aiming to be, and that may have been the reason I didn’t click with it. Until you mentioned it, I never stopped to think that it wasn’t trying to be literary, so your comment certainly gave me something to think about. Still, for me, I found the pacing a bit sluggish and obvious so it wasn’t really a page-turner for me! Interesting that you considered The Help to be in a similar vein – if I ever read that one, I’ll keep that in mind!
     
    @ Kari: One of my pet peeves is authors that pick hot button issues but then fail to actually explore them in any meaningful way. I find that kind of writing lazy, as it feels like the authors are simply skating by on having picked a provocative/incendiary idea but don’t have to put any weight behind it. I think Donoghue does some exploration here, but not nearly enough. But perhaps I would have found non-fiction work on this topic more rewarding; in my undergrad psych classes, I was always fascinated by cases of Viktor and Genie.
     
    @zibilee: I think I did ultimately adjust to Jack’s voice in that it stopped being a full-fledged irritant as I kept reading, but there were only rare glimpses where he felt like a fully realized character to me, which was a shame given that I spent 370+ pages with him! At times he reminded me a bit of Christopher, the narrator in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, but I ultimately connected with Christopher far more. Even though his struggles were far less dramatic than Jack’s, I felt I was able to empathize with him better.

  7. I’m really impressed with the way you have described all your problems with this book and I think that you are a victim of hype. 🙁 I never expected this book to win the Booker prize (although it was my favourite book on the list) As Claire states this isn’t a literary book and anyone with that impression will be disappointed. I do think it is a very well written and I have my fingers crossed for the Orange prize, but you have to take this book at face value. There is no depth – just a fast paced narrative with lots of thought provoking issues.

    I loved the originality of the book. Jack’s innocence and emotions really affected me, but perhaps I was more affected because I have a five-year-old son? I thought that the events were paced at exactly the right level for a five-year-old – they don’t dwell on their emotions in the same way adults do. I agree that it lacked the depth of analysis that adults would give the same situation, but I thought this made the book more powerful as it left the reader to fill in the gaps. If you feel that you would prefer the details then I suggest you read Forgetting Zoe by Ray Robinson. It covers an almost identical situation, but I thought it gave too much detail and so lost the emotional power of Room.

    I agree that the escape was a bit farfetched, but it could happen?!

  8. 11/01/2010

    Steph, you are indeed the only blogger I follow that wasn’t exited about it 🙂

    Just building a bit on Jackie’s comment: I see where you’re coming from, especially with your point about Donoghue just “scratching the surface”. The thing is, that’s actually the reason why I loved it so much. It would be so easy for her to go down the emotional route, but she approached it in a completely unexpected way, which might be closer to the emotions of a 5 year-old.

    My book club is reading it this month and now I’m curious to see it there’s also dissident voices in the group.

  9. 11/01/2010

    Is it weird that even though I suspect I’ll like this myself, I was very glad to find a negative review? 😛 You made your points very well, and I think going in with lower expectations will only help me appreciate Room more for what it is. Besides, it’s always interesting to read a different perspective! Jackie and Alex’s comments intrigued me; I suspect I’ll be musing about it all when I finally pick iy up myself.

  10. 11/01/2010

    I am also keen to read it but like you there are about 50 people ahead of me! I am wondering also at the hype and maybe thinking you were expecting too much of the book. The two books which actually lived upto the hype for me (in similar themes) were Still Missing and The Widows Season. The Widows Season is not in this vein of mystery but still was a good read. Still Missing kept me on tenterhooks right to the end.

  11. 11/01/2010

    Steph, I am so glad to read your review, because I was extremely underwhelmed with ROOM. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one 🙂 Your post is spot on! I finished the book over the weekend and was wondering how to go about reviewing it on my blog since I was so disappointed with it. Truthfully, I just don’t get all the fuss over it and I can definitely understand why it didn’t win the Booker. Like you, I just felt the book lacked so much more depth that could have truly made it a great read. I got tired of reading Jack’s perspective, since he was limited in fully grasping the situation and what his Ma had truly been enduring for so many years. I just felt as if Donoghue utilized the news headlines for her idea, but didn’t really push it any further. Oh well, on to the next read, right? Thanks so much for this post – now I don’t feel so alone in my opinion ( I was beginning to wonder if I had missed anything). Cheers!

  12. 11/01/2010

    @ Jackie: It’s funny that in all the reviews I read, it was never clear to me that this wasn’t really a “literary” piece of fiction! I can’t believe I somehow missed that crucial bit of information… 😉
    I do think Donoghue does accurately reflect the mentality of a young boy, so I’m not faulting her for that so much as simply saying I found that voice unsatisfying as an adult. But I can see how perhaps as a mother it would be easier to connect with Jack, as you have a son of your own who may process things in a similar way.
    Also, thanks for the recommendation for Forgetting Zoe. I don’t think I’ve heard of that one, but I’ll have to check it out!
     
    @ Alex: You’ll have to let me know how your book club responds to this one. Regardless of my feelings, I think this would make for an excellent discussion – plenty to talk about!
     
    @ Nymeth: I think it’s very rare for a book to live up to nearly universal praise, so it probably would have helped me to have read a few negative (or at the very least, less glowing) reviews before I picked this one up. I rarely find that books that have been commercially super successful are ones that I love, but for every Room, I suppose there’s a Harry Potter so I certainly won’t steer clear of books simply because they’re popular… I’ll just have to do my research a little bit better next time! 😉
     
    @ Mystica: I probably did expect too much going into this book, in that I probably was expecting the wrong things! I think if I had known it was merely meant to be a plot boiler, then I likely wouldn’t have been as frustrated. I know that some books can live up to their effusive hype, but I think one needs to be careful in making sure books that others love sound like good matches for oneself!
     
    @ Nadia: Oh, I’m so glad to hear I’m not alone in my supreme apathy towards this book! We can band together in our desire to move on and promote better books! 🙂 Really looking forward to your review!

  13. i had this out from the library for ages and just didn’t get around to it–even had it featured on my sidebar! can’t say i’ll be rushing back to borrow it again after reading your tepid review. 🙁

  14. 11/03/2010

    I’m going to echo Ana and say I still intend to read this one day because I’m intrigued by the premise. Still, I’m glad to see a little push-back against the near-universal praise. There’s hardly a book in the world that’s that good. Plus, I do to enjoy a contrarian view :). During Booker season, I did see a few bloggers imply that this book made the Booker list to give it some populist appeal, so I’m not entirely surprised that you thought it lacked depth.

    And I laughed out loud at “this is why we don’t normally read books written by five year olds.”

  15. 11/04/2010

    Like everyone else has, I’ve heard about this book, so out of curiosity I looked through it during one of my bookstore visits, and what I read just didn’t grab me. Also, as a mom, I found the storyline to be potentially disurbing for me. I figured that I have so many books in my TBR to read before I ever even consider this one!

  16. 11/04/2010

    I created my own hype knowing how much I have enjoyed her previous works. Then comes the interesting premise that it’s told in the perspective of a five year old. The one-sitting magic didn’t work for me, and in fact, I found the book very tedious to begin with, and I put it down for other choices.

  17. 11/05/2010

    I didn’t think this was a book I’d like but I kept seeing so many raves of it. I have to say thank you for your mehcommendation. I think I’ve decided to pass on it. Sounds frustrating.

  18. 11/05/2010

    @ Teresa: Well really, I can’t think of any books by five year olds and I think there is a good reason for that! 😉 Glad you got a laugh from that, but it’s also true, right?
     
    @ Valerie: I often talk about books with my grad school advisor and she said the same thing about Room – since becoming a mom, she just can’t stomach books that have upsetting things happen to children. I think you’re right to remember that there are tons of other books that you could better spend your time with!
     
    @ Matt: I feel so bad because I actually really wanted to check out Donoghue’s back catalog a lot, but I disliked Room so much I’m now not sure if I should! But the fact that you love her earlier stuff but didn’t care for this book at all gives me hope that I’ll like her older work more… I’m sure I’ll try it some day!
     
    @ Rebecca: Rebecca, I’m pretty sure you can skip this one. It definitely doesn’t seem like the kind of book that I think you would like!

  19. mee
    11/10/2010

    I agree with a lot of your, Claire’s, and Jackie’s points. The beginning was sluggish, it’s not literary, a bit gimmicky, has limited coverage, but a page-turner (later on). I wanted to read the book since I heard it the first time from one blogger (think it was softdrink) and I only read 2-3 reviews after that, so I kept my expectation and prior knowledge of the book pretty low. The Booker shortlist did make the book jump to the top of my list, hence why I read it (probably the only book of 2010 that I read this year). I can imagine how everything builds up if you read too many glowing reviews prior to reading. Expectations and hype could be a dangerous thing! At the end of the day I thought it was a fun read, rather unique, and raised some interesting issues, though it doesn’t necessarily stay with me for too long.

  20. 11/10/2010

    @ mee: There were a lot of good looking books on the Booker list this year, though I think I was more excited by some of the books on the longlist that didn’t make the shortlist! I think my issue with this one was definitely a case of misplaced expectations; I didn’t fully understand what this book was when I picked it up, and so I probably had an unfair measuring stick held against it the whole time.

  21. 11/12/2010

    While I thought Room was incredible (though I never, ever want to read it again), and I read it too long ago to disagree with any specificity, this has got to be one of my favorite reviews EVAR because of these lines:

    “just in case you’ve been living under a rock (or in Room)”
    and
    “to which I counter that this is why we don’t normally read books written by five year olds.”

    An excellent mehcommendation.

  22. 11/16/2010

    I read Room while I was in the desert known as Blogger’s Fatigue, and I agree with everything you say here. Like you, I read it because “I wanted to see what all the fuss was about,” but, well, also because I felt like it would work with me. However, as with some of the things you pointed out: Jack’s voice, the disintegration of the narrative in the latter half of the book. The thing is, I did stay up all night reading this book. But there’s something that’s so disturbing about it that’s not even about the content. Just, well, how it was told. Mehcommendation indeed!

  23. 11/17/2010

    @ Eleanor: I’m so glad that you enjoyed the review! I think the point about five-year-old authors is a sound one! 😀
     
    @ Sasha: Yes, I was reading this while during a bit of a reading slump, which may have contributed to my overall ambivalence towards the book. It was easy enough to read and didn’t require much time, but it just didn’t wow me in any real way.

  24. 11/19/2010

    Sorry to know that you didn’t like ‘Room’ much, Steph. I enjoyed reading your review and your thoughtful observations on why you were not very impressed with the book. I read ‘Room’ sometime back and I have to confess that I loved it. I thought that the love between a mother and a child was beautifully depicted in the book. But I can see it from your perspective on why the book didn’t work for you – not exploring issues in more depth and also Jack’s way of speaking.

    Thanks for the interesting review 🙂

  25. 11/19/2010

    @ Vishy: I went to read your review of Room – it’s so funny how we bloggers can have such disparate responses to a book. But that’s what makes things interesting, I think. I certainly see why this book does work for some people, but alas, I am too cold-hearted, it would seem! 😀

  26. 11/20/2010

    I don’t know whether you meant ‘want to read’ or ‘went to read’. If you meant ‘want to read’ you can find my review of ‘Room’ here – http://vishytheknight.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/book-review-no-32-%E2%80%93-room-by-emma-donoghue/

    (I have forgotten all about HTML that I learnt, and so pardon me for not giving a better link).

    Yes, different thoughts on the same book make conversations on it quite interesting. I don’t think you are cold-hearted – you look the opposite in your picture 🙂

  27. […] “Some people have said they thought Donoghue really nails the voice of a young child… to which I counter that this is why we don’t normally read books written by five year olds. They aren’t very insightful, and the things they find interesting are not exactly what adults (especially those living outside of Room) will find fascinating.” Steph & Tony Investigate […]

  28. […] Bibliophile by the Sea Jen’s Book Thoughts (audiobook review) John’s Blog nomadreader Steph & Tony Investigate! A Worn Path Read The New York Times review of Room. Advertisement LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

  29. […] Bibliophile by the Sea Jen’s Book Thoughts (audiobook review) John’s Blog nomadreader Steph & Tony Investigate! A Worn Path Read The New York Times review of Room. Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

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