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Room: A Novel

A book by Emma Donoghue

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A Room You Shouldn't Enter

  • Feb 2, 2011

I had been reading and hearing nothing but good things about Room, so I finally decided to see what the hype was all about. My reading pleasure was slightly tainted when the library gave me one week to read it. The book is that popular with the public! However, my friend Paula assured me that it was a quick read. This was not the case. Although I was able to finish the book in one week, it was out of sheer pride and stubbornness. I wanted to stop reading it numerous times, and if the library had given me longer than a week, I would not have finished it as quickly. I was determined, though, and didn't supplement my reading with more enjoyable titles. It didn't make sense to write a negative review of such a highly praised novel without making the extreme effort to finish the blasted thing. 

If it wasn't apparent already, I didn't enjoy Room. I had been hearing things like "riveting," "realistic," "suspenseful," and "easily finished in a single reading." This was not the case. Everything in the book was predictable, even the grand finale. I sincerely mean everything too. Ask me about any "shocking" detail, and I will tell you when I knew that incident or detail was going to be revealed. Because of the predictability of Room, the book dragged on and on. The most mundane details that were supposed to tug at the readers' heartstrings had me yawning in boredom. Sigh. Jack is drinking from his mom's breasts again. Jack's watching Dora again. Etc. It was really a chore to finish a book that had no plot. It was a character driven piece, but when you can't relate to the characters, there's really nothing to care about other than the idea behind the book. 

The idea behind Room is compelling and readers should be aware of it. The plot is inspired by the true story of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman imprisoned by her father for twenty-four years. One of her sons, five year old Felix, was the inspiration for the protagonist Jack. Similar captivity stories that inspired this piece include the cases of Jaycee Lee Dugard, a woman from California, and Natascha Kampusch, another Austrian woman who later became an Austrian talk show host. Room may be fiction, but it was inspired by true events. What was described has happened and probably is still happening to this day. This knowledge and understanding alone does not make the book worthy of all the praise it's receiving. Actually, it puts more pressure on author Emma Donoghue to give justice and credence to the crimes committed against these women and their children. This was an opportunity to vindicate the victims, and I was sorely disappointed. 

In all honesty, I didn't know much about these cases until after reading the novel. I was so disappointed by the writing that I had to understand Donoghue's inspiration behind Room. To a certain degree, Room succeeded by making me more aware of threats against women and children. I can't imagine the fear that this book stirs in anyone that has children, but I can better understand the need to protect the innocent from monsters that blend in with society. As a piece of fiction, though, Room failed. 

The setting is an American city. We don't really know what city, but the emphasis on American coins, references to a new president, and other American quirks alert us to this country. That's not really important, though. What's important is that the family is being held captive in a garden shed fitted with soundproofed cork, lead-lined walls, and a coded metal security door. Only one person "visits" them, a man known by the nickname “Old Nick.” The specific dimensions of the room measures 11x11. This is not the only setting revealed in the book, but it is the most significant, which is why the title of the book is "Room." 

As already mentioned, the story/plot mimics the real-life accounts of women held captive against their will. The significance of children and Jack's role in the novel is to show that the story affects other innocents born in captivity. It also minimizes the amount of brutality the author depicts through her writing. Most of the plot is about how "Ma," we never learn her name, and Jack have survived their captivity and continue to survive it. They desperately seek an ounce of normalcy in an inhumane and obviously not normal situation. Everyday activities take on new meaning in the confined spaces of Room. Jack "goes to school" and has lessons on reading, memorization, measurements, mathematics, and one of his most favorite classes, gym. All the activities are told from Jack's perspective as he is the narrator of this story. Ma's struggles don't go unnoticed, though, because Jack is a very astute and intelligent five-year old boy. He understands Ma's situation without even realizing it. 

There are two serious issues I have with this story: 

1. The narrator Jack 
2. The descriptions of everyday activities that drive the nonexistent plot and character development, an aspect that suffered because of the weak point of view. 

Jack is an unreliable narrator. This is not a bad concept as an unreliable narrator can add a lot of depth, mystery, and intrigue to a fictional work. In this case, viewing the whole situation from Jack's eyes just "watered-down" the experiences of these women. Donoghue tries to make up for this folly by juxtaposing points of childish innocence with the actual horrors of Jack's reality, an aspect that Jack can't always understand but the reader can. In order to present this simultaneous perspective, Donoghue sacrifices the integrity of her narrator. Jack does not talk like a young child who's been cut off from the world his entire young life (five years). He does act like a little kid, often imbuing human qualities and traits to nonhuman objects, such as "Plant" being his friend and the "Sun" being God, etc. At the same time that he uses and thinks what I call "baby talk," he can understand adult concepts such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or sing along to music well beyond the comprehension of a five year old. Then, the horrendous speech takes over, and the reader is repeatedly bashed over the head with the unknown depths of children's shows such as Dora the Explorer and Spongebob Squarepants. Jack is a contradiction. He doesn't understand his life, yet he does. There are moments of poignant awareness that deny Jack's innocence and age restriction. Donoghue tries to give the reader the best of both worlds through Jack: the innocent child perspective and the adult understanding of the horrors of Ma's and Jack's lives. By doing this, she sacrificed the connection between the reader and the characters. 

Considering that nothing ever happens in the book save for about halfway through, Room is purely character driven. Unfortunately, the most interesting character, Ma, remains unamed throughout the story while being filtered through the eyes of her annoying son. The quality that made him annoying was the very style that everyone praises-- the constant reliance on his "baby talk." After ten pages, I was ready to scream. It was too contrived for my tastes. I craved moments of silence when Jack wasn't talking or thinking while other dialog occurred. I'm not a fan of the first person perspective, so add this to the unique style of Jack, and the book was doomed to be an unsatisfying read. If Donoghue had been more crafty with the use of the almost unintelligible "baby talk" and five-year old approach to the story, it might have worked. However, she tried to do too much with one character. 

There are numerous themes and motifs sprinkled throughout the entire novel. The main one is that love conquers anything. No matter what happens in life, love makes pain, trauma, and in this case imprisonment, worth bearing. Of course the love that Donoghue highlights is between a mother and her child. Other themes include survival at all costs, acclimating to a new existence, effects the public, especially the paparazzi, have on the development of an individual's psyche, and the unknown strengths of a young hero. Only two themes stood out as absolutely necessary-- love and survival versus despair. A lot of the additional themes were thrown in as a way of making Jack's world right and giving readers the happy ending they wanted. 

There weren't a lot of unique literary devices used other than metaphors, allusions, similes, and analogies. The stylistic quality that made it different from other novels was the point of view, Jack's. Ironically enough, this was the aspect that ruined Room for me. 

I'm unclear as to the message/purpose of this piece. On one hand, I felt that Donoghue wanted to share how the real life situations of captive women affected her profoundly and deeply enough to write a fictional story about it. She wanted to "get the word out there" to a larger audience, and she felt that a fictional story was the best device. On the other hand, I feel like she exploited what these women went through for her own capitalist gains. She made their story more bearable to read by filtering it through the eyes of a young child. She wrote for a mass audience and to make a name for herself as a writer. 

In order to share their story, the women loss their voices. Ma isn't even named in the novel, thus denying her a real identity outside of her societal role. At the same time, the women's stories became more horrifying because innocent children were harmed, young people who rely on others for protection. I didn't mind this emphasis, and do think that it's an important part of all the news articles. At the same time, I wanted to understand more about the women who were innocent victims in each case too. I didn't like how it had to be an either/or perspective rather than a shared experience between woman and child, which a third person narrative would have illustrated better. Finally, "watering down" any atrocity annoys me. You can't be afraid to see and understand the truth no matter how ugly it is. 

I've never read anything by this author before, and I'm nervous to try again. If she relies on the "sensational" to make her characters and story more interesting, then no thank you. I'm not interested in contrived literary techniques. It shows that her writing skills and talents for telling a story are desperately wanting. A writer shouldn't rely on a gimmick to sell a story. The actual contents of the book need to be strong enough to stand on its own. I've never read anything like Room before, unless you count Misery. After reading Room, I'm tired of the entire concept. I would rather read the news articles and true-life accounts of this situation as told by the victims rather than a fictional retelling. 

Overall, there's pros and cons to reading this novel. 

The Pros: 

  1. The concept/reality behind the book. 
  2. Learning about the real events that inspired the author. 
  3. The hope and love that good things can and do happen no matter how bad the situation appears. I'm a sucker for happy endings, no matter how unrealistic. 

The Cons: 

  1. Language/narrative perspective. 
  2. Predictability/lack of suspense. 
  3. The lack of realism for the latter half of the book. 

Do I regret reading this book? A little. Would I read it again? Never! Still, it's not the worst piece of writing that I've read, and I do give credit to what the author attempted. I would recommend Room to young adults because they are the target audience. Based on the reviews, though, people of all ages might enjoy it as long as the narrative voice doesn't drive them batty like it did me. 

For those of you looking for a funny anecdote, I was reading and exclaiming at the same time when my husband asked me what was wrong. I gave him the book, and he read a few pages. Eventually, he looked up and shook his head in disbelief. "Are you kidding me," he asked before walking away. No, I'm not. The narrator is that distracting and annoying. Be prepared for over 300 pages of gibberish child language.

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July 11, 2011
Thanks for the response, Adrianna.
July 12, 2011
My pleasure. :) I enjoy our conversations.
July 10, 2011
Love does conquer all.
July 11, 2011
Agreed. It's the most powerful emotion in the world.
February 10, 2011
I received a copy of this book from the publisher and read it before all the string of glorious reviews for it.  I enjoyed it, but have been a bit surprised by it's huge success.  

I think why Jack as the narrator didn't bother me too much was the break in realism.  I didn't feel like he acted like a 5 year old a lot of the time.  Like you said, this is a character driven story and if you didn't like Jack, then I'm surprised and impressed you made it through.

I found your comments about Ma interesting.  I wanted a better grasp on her character.  She came across as rude and since I had followed the news articles about the women that inspired this story, I wanted to know more about her.  I was disappointed in that aspect as well as not getting a better background on Nick.

I enjoyed reading your review.  I thought Room was worth reading if for no other reason it was an interesting concept.
February 22, 2011
Hi Meli!

I'm glad you were able to procure an early copy of this book. I'm surprised by its success myself. I noticed that a lot of sites were pushing it in advertisements, such as Goodreads, so I'm sure that helped a lot.

That's part of my issue with the book and some of the reviews I've been reading--everyone says that Jack acts like your typical 5-year old...which I disagree with. I believe the author took this perspective to give readers a break from the real horrors of their situation. It's much easier to stomach what they are going through with Jack's innocent eyes and mind.

Yeah, I really try to read through all the books I start even if I dislike them. I feel like it's the only way to give a fair assessment of a read. Plus, I'm sure authors appreciate when you take the time to read their book from start to finish even if you end up not enjoying it.

Glad you found the comments on Ma interesting. I felt the same way about Nick too. I just felt that choosing the boy as a narrator was just another way to silence an already powerless and voiceless woman. The story was as much hers as Jack's. 

I also agree with you about the final assessment. The concept was what made the book. Terrible that it's based on so many real-life crimes.

Did you get a chance to write a review on it?
February 23, 2011
I didn't think about it as silencing ma, but I think you're right.  While the story is about both of them in some way we lost out on the inspiration, which were the violated women.

I did write a review on it.  I'll grab a copy of it and post it here.  At the time I wrote the review, I liked it better than I do now.  I think that's because almost six months after reading it, what sticks with me is what I didn't really care for in the book rather than the creative nature of it.
February 23, 2011
Exactly! Nice to see that someone understands what I'm saying. I tried to express that in the review, but I'm not sure it came across as eloquently as I hoped.

I can't wait to read your review! Shoot me a link once it's posted over here. Yeah, sometimes our feelings change about a book after some time has passed. One of the main reasons I like to re-read some titles and write multiple reviews on them. It's always interesting to see if one's thoughts/perceptions have changed.
February 23, 2011
Never mind! I just saw the review, so I'm off to read it now. :)
February 09, 2011
Thanks for sharing this. I guess I won't be stepping into this "Room" anytime soon. I admire how you could write such a long review on a book that you were so obviously disappointed with.
February 09, 2011
Thanks for reading my review, Michael! You never might enjoy the book as long as you don't mind the POV. The main reason I wrote such a lengthy review was because I really wanted the novel to be better than what it turned out to be. I was disappointed that it didn't live up to my expectations, but it was still a valid concept, especially considering that it's based on real life crimes.
February 09, 2011
Love your play on words on the title! That's too bad to hear about the book, but I really enjoyed reading your breakdown of the book and your comparisons to real life stories nonetheless. Thanks for sharing, Adrianna!
February 09, 2011
Thanks! I thought long and hard about the title too, lol! The book didn't speak to me, but I did enjoy researching the real life stories. Glad you found the review helpful!
February 02, 2011
Poopy words make bad book makes good review. Ha-ha!
February 09, 2011
(laughs) Cute. :-P
February 09, 2011
I second Sean's statement. No matter how much you use poopy words, review is awesome. ;)
February 09, 2011
lol, thanks, William. :) Glad you read and liked it!
February 02, 2011
Wow...I'd been seeing this book everywhere and was starting to think about buying it. Thanks for saving me the money! Sorry to hear it was such an annoying read. I hate wasting my time on books that make me feel like that!
February 09, 2011
Yeah, that was what I was going to do originally too. I'm so glad I didn't, though. The language and POV just wasn't my piece of cake. It was interesting but then got tiresome for the whole novel to be written like that. I would recommend renting it from the library before you consider buying it.
More Room: A Novel reviews
review by . March 21, 2012
Room       Author: Emma Donoghue   Reviewed By Fran Lewis       The four walls of a room can often be confining when you are sick and unable to get around. But, what happens when the four walls become your only outlet with the world, your only environment and the only person that you see is you mother. From the day he was born Jack’s world evolved in the space of an entire Room. His mother, Ma was kidnapped and lived in the room …
review by . October 16, 2013
  I finished reading Emma Donoghue's Room a few days ago and I've been puzzling about it ever since.       The novel, which according to Donoghue's website has now sold more than a million copies, was nominated  for and/or has won a raft of prizes including the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (for best Canadian novel), the Commonwealth Prize (Canada & Carribbean Region), the Canadian Booksellers’ Asand the Orange Prize.  …
Quick Tip by . February 19, 2012
a great perspective of kidnap from the view of one who's never known anything else.
review by . February 23, 2011
Jack has spent his entire life in one location—Room. It is where he was born and to his five year old mind, Room is the entire world. His world contains three people, himself, Ma, and Old Nick. Ma, a victim of kidnapping, uses their limited supplies, to transform Room into a place of adventure and excitement, filled with childhood stories and imaginative play. However, she has never given up hope of being rescued and she longs for their freedom. Told entirely from Jack’s perspective, …
review by . February 25, 2011
I would never have read this book if it wasn't part of The Morning News' Tournament of Books. Although this seems to be on most "best books" lists for 2010(and shortlisted for the Mann Booker prize), I wasn't sure I wanted to read Room. The story is being told by a five year old boy who is trapped in a 11' by 11' room with his mother. I have to admit to being concerned about how ghoulish and difficult the subject matter would be. I just didn't need another book …
review by . July 10, 2010
This is the kind of book that is better the less you know about it.    Even the product description above, and probably most of the reviews here will give you more information than you need to know.    So this review won't tell you much about this book. What I can tell you is that it lives up to the hype. It's a poignant, thoughtful, and completely original book.    What makes it original? -- the way of looking at the world, the use of …
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Adrianna Simone ()
Ranked #9
MY GROUPS (AND COMMUNITY):      The following information was taken from the officialCafe Libri Website.   Cafe Libri (Yahoo Reading Discussion Group)is the original Cafe … more
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Amazon Best of the Month, September 2010: In many ways, Jack is a typical 5-year-old. He likes to read books, watch TV, and play games with his Ma. But Jack is different in a big way--he has lived his entire life in a single room, sharing the tiny space with only his mother and an unnerving nighttime visitor known as Old Nick. For Jack, Room is the only world he knows, but for Ma, it is a prison in which she has tried to craft a normal life for her son. When their insular world suddenly expands beyond the confines of their four walls, the consequences are piercing and extraordinary. Despite its profoundly disturbing premise, Emma Donoghue'sRoomis rife with moments of hope and beauty, and the dogged determination to live, even in the most desolate circumstances. A stunning and original novel of survival in captivity, readers who enterRoomwill leave staggered, as though, like Jack, they are seeing the world for the very first time.--Lynette Mong
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ISBN-10: 0316098337
ISBN-13: 978-0316098335
Author: Emma Donoghue
Genre: Literature & Fiction, Mystery & Thrillers
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
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