Reading Into It: Room & A Stolen Life

by Rachel on September 7, 2011

Over the long weekend, I read Room and A Stolen Life. Because clearly I like to keep my reading material light.

Actually both of those books are about dark, horrible events, and yet somehow I wasn’t deeply disturbed afterward.

Well, OK, I was kind of disturbed that so many people recommended Room to me, because I kind of hated it.

I started Room months ago, right after I got my Kindle, but after the first chapter, I just could not get into it. That rarely happens to me, but the book was just not clicking for me so I decided to set it aside. Then last week, I was in need of new reading material so I decided to give it another shot. Within a couple days, two bloggers had chosen it as a book club read, so I was glad I decided to re-visit it. At least I could accidentally be part of a book club, right?

I can see why this would be a good book club book; there are so many things to say about it. Unfortunately, in my case, most of them are bad.

The premise: A woman (“Ma”) was kidnapped and has been held captive in a soundproof shed for seven years, where she is repeatedly raped by her captor, “Old Nick.” This led to two pregnancies; the first resulted in a stillborn birth and the second resulted in Jack, the book’s narrator. Jack is five years old and has never been outside of “Room” before. All he knows is his world inside with his mother. He doesn’t know who Old Nick is or why he comes each night. His life is pretty good because he doesn’t know anything else.

A lot of people have commented that the premise is disturbing, and it is dark, but that didn’t really bother me. (I don’t know what that says about me.) But a lot of other things bothered me.

1. The book doesn’t have a plot for the first 100 pages. That’s a really long time to go without a plot. I got really bored and was tempted to go online looking for spoilers, just so I’d know there was something coming eventually. I didn’t and if you’re reading it, you shouldn’t either. I can tell you that it does get better, around page 105. For about ten pages it gets so much better. Like, couldn’t-put-it-down-I-have-to-know-what-happens better. And then it went away. But those ten pages…damn!

2. After a few pages, the novelty of the child narrator wore off and I just found him annoying. And a little unrealistic. He knows big words like “omnivore” but he says things like “Ma hotted up my food in the microwave.” His sentences are just completely ridiculous, with verbs in all the wrong places, to the point it was just distracting. I’ve never heard a 5-year-old talk like that. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense that Ma goes through such trouble to give him a normal life and raise him to be smart and well-adjusted — she teaches him to read, doesn’t let him watch TV all day, etc. — and then doesn’t correct his grammar. By the end of the book, I just didn’t feel any sympathy for him, which is terrible, I know, but I just didn’t find him all that likeable.

3. Like I said, it wasn’t too disturbing for me. The thing I found most disturbing was when Jack counted the bed creaks when Old Nick would come in at night. But honestly, what really gave me the creeps was how Jack talked about his mother’s breasts and insisted on being breastfed. The breastfeeding didn’t bother me as much as how he talked about it.

4. The second “act,” so to speak, was awful. There were a few highlights, but on the whole, the whole thing seemed better suited for a novella or short story that ended after those awesome ten pages.

5. For the most part, I found Ma really unlikeable. When she was plotting their escape, all I could think was, She’s so selfish. And stupid. Nothing about the escape plan seemed probable, and while I can understand why she was desperate, I was pissed that she’d risk her child’s life like she did. I mean, to expect the plan to work, to expect a child to outrun a man like Old Nick was just…too much for me.

OK, so the plan worked. Fine. I can accept that, only because the real case the story was based on involved a similar escape story.

6. Once we got into the second part, with Ma and Nick in the hospital, I started to like Ma a little bit more. I liked when she was a little selfish, when she wanted Jack to leave her alone. I liked when she was bitchy during the TV interview; that seemed realistic. What really shocked me was her suicide attempt. After all that, after seven years of unimaginable horror, after risking her own life and her child’s life…she went and downed a bottle of pills??

7. Jack’s family members weren’t very nice people. His aunt and uncle took him shopping and spent the whole time bitching at each other and then getting frustrated when he asked for toys or tried to take a book home because he had the same book so he thought it was his. And his grandma was a total biatch! She lost patience with him so quickly and then she went and lost him when they were out shopping. Really? You lost your daughter, and now you’re not going to keep a closer eye on your grandson, who has been in the real world for just a few weeks and is being hunted by the paparazzi? Really, grandma???

Bottom line: I don’t recommend Room, but I think it might be one of those “decide for yourself” reads. A lot of people have been raving about Room…but a lot of the reviews on Amazon had the exact same complaints I did. Might as well decide for yourself, although I recommend saving a few bucks and getting it from the library.

After reading the fictional account that is Room, I needed some non-fiction version to like…balance things out, so I decided to read A Stolen Life.

Jaycee Dugard’s memoir is a non-fiction account of a similar story, this time told from the woman’s POV. On the one hand, this book could have been more disturbing than Room, and in many ways it was, but because it was written so simply and honestly, it wasn’t. It truly felt like she was just telling her story. I read that she wrote it without the help of a ghostwriter and I think that’s what made it so good. It was like reading a blog or an e-mail from a friend or even a first-person account in a magazine — her voice was all over it, and that made it both easy to read and totally gripping. It was sad and shocking, but really, it was a story of courage and hope. I had tears in my eyes when she was reunited with her mother; I’m getting teary right now thinking about what a survivor she is. I was just disgusted that this continued for 18 years and that the man’s wife enabled the entire thing, but on the whole, I really liked the book and was glad I read it.

Bottom line: Read it!

Have you read either of these books? Thoughts??

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dori September 7, 2011 at 10:07 am

I am one of the people who loved Room. I understand all your criticisms, but the book totally got under my skin and I needed to recommend it to everyone. It was disturbing but also enthralling. I just stared A Stolen Life this morning, so your review is excellent timing! Btw, finished the last book in the Hunger Games last night. I can’t stop thinking about all three.

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2 Jaclyn September 7, 2011 at 10:09 am

I read Room a few months ago and I’d say your assessment is pretty accurate. I appreciated the idea of the book–the execution could have been so much better, though. The breastfeeding thing was gross and Jack was a super unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator can work just fine, but needs to be consistent. I really couldn’t get past my disbelief that Old Nick would fall for Ma’s plan. There’s no way that crazy old guy would just believe her and take the kid out of the room without checking to make sure he was really dead. And you’re right, those ten pages were SO exciting, then hit a wall. I think it’s worth the read if only to examine how you would take a true story and fictionalize it.

I recommend The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for a great unreliable narrator. That’s a book you can read in one day.

I’m on the last few pages of A Stolen Life. I think as a whole it works because it’s so honest. That being said, the writing just isn’t very good. I know she’s not a professional writer, so I’ve overlooked that for the most part. Not everyone is a writer. It doesn’t really detract from the insanity of the story or the insight into what she endured for all those years, so it’s fine. I’ll allow it.

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3 Rachel September 7, 2011 at 10:14 am

Re: Room. I couldn’t get past my disbelief that he wouldn’t check either!!! I could support the hospital scheme (which DID work in the real case) but not that one. It made for a great scene, but still.

Re: A Stolen Life. Yup, agree on everything! She isn’t a writer and yet sort of doesn’t try to be, so it just works.

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4 Jenn September 7, 2011 at 10:34 am

I started The Room, and all your criticisms about Jack are what lead me to put it away. I’m a grad student, and my “fun” reading time is precious, although I think I might enjoy the second half, if I made it that far.

A Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night is an excellently written book from an unusual narrative voice.

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5 Bonnie B September 8, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Loved “Curious Incident.” Sounded authentic. Fiction must ring true, or why bother. And I will someday read Dugard’s story. She sounds like a remarkably honest young woman. I am sure we all wish her well.

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6 Rachael September 7, 2011 at 10:34 am

Well you already know my thoughts on Room. I read it in a day or so, and never thought of it again. His narration bothered me as well, it didn’t flow well for me. Their time in the room was depressing and I just wanted it to end. Then it did and suddenly the time outside the room was equally as depressing. I don’t mind depressing books, but I agree, the entire thing feels like a wet soggy towel over your head if there’s no plot to grab a hold of.

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7 Heidi Nicole September 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm

I think A Stolen Life is getting added to my long list of books on my new library account. Think its out as an audiobook yet? I am just burning through books with my long commute!

Based upon your review (I totally read the spoilers) I don’t think I’ll be reading Room anytime soon. I think I’ll have a really hard time dealing with how his family treated Jack…just what you wrote made me mad!

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8 Kaytee September 7, 2011 at 2:10 pm

I’m one of the people who LOVED Room. I think the child narrator helped balance the horror of what was really going on. I understand the frustration with the inconsistencies in his language, but my 4 year old niece can throw around words like “amphibian” and then five seconds later say “I need potty,” so I tried to cut the author a little slack there. And yes, it totally bothered me that the book started out so slow, but I felt like it really showed how uneventful and regimented their lives were before they escaped captivity, in order to juxtapose how immediately crazy their lives became.

This may be a little fucked up, but I was glad the author had “Ma” attempt suicide. PTSD, anyone? It would have unbelievable to me if she walked out of the ordeal and was, other than being a little bitchy, completely well adjusted. Especially after that brutal tv interview.

All of that said, I agree that the book was flawed. Like you mentioned, the breastfeeding was weird and I wish “Ma” had done more to validate it, such as saying she was worried he wouldn’t get enough food in captivity or something. And ugh the scene where Jack’s aunt took him into the bathroom with her & her daughter made me sick to my stomach. Anyway, to wrap up my essay length comment, I enjoyed the book, but thought it could have been better. I recommended it to my friends with a disclaimer: Room is definitely not for everyone.

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9 Lymie September 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm

I was going to pick up Room at Target, it was on sale, but you’re right about the narration. I can do simple, but I can’t do incoherent, inconsistent writing. And I’m all about the voice. You don’t read with your own voice, you read with what the author puts into the text. So I put it down and grabbed an equally shitty book: When We Were Friends. The only thing I liked about it was that the ending wasn’t unrealistic and the ends weren’t tied up to neat and tidy. This is why I’m upset with Dean Koontz. Come on man, end it after the final show down. Don’t give me a twenty year update about how the victims fell in love and had to make the tough choice between spaghetti and bbq.

I get very upset about these things.

Very.

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10 Phoebe September 8, 2011 at 12:37 am

I’m a huge true crime junkie in general and I find stories of captivity especially compelling. I may read Room at some point, but thanks for your review! There are plenty of amazing books with an unconventional narrative voice but it is so hard to get right. I think about the Fritzl case a lot – I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to live in a cellar for 24 years, and what suffering they must have endured. I spend a lot of time trying to think of ways they could have escaped, because I often think that Elizabeth and the two oldest children perhaps could have overpowered the elderly Josef Fritzl. I’d like to read A Stolen Life; I have a really hard time understanding why someone would stay in captivity when given the means to escape, like access to a phone, and would love some insight into this. Of course there are cases like Sabine Dardenne too (but she was only in captivity 3 months). An interesting YA novel on the same subject is “Stolen” by Lucy Christopher. It’s a bit flawed but maybe worth reading!

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11 Phoebe September 8, 2011 at 2:49 am

Oh, by the way, “hotted up” is actually a semi-obscure British-ism. I’ve definitely seen it in Adrian Mole or Bridget Jones or similar.

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12 kenny September 8, 2011 at 7:42 am

I haven’t been able to get past the first several pages of Room. I just felt so distant from the whole thing that I have let it gather dust on the side-table for months now. I know lots of people liked it, I am sure glad to see you didn’t! And perhaps, thanks to your spoilers, I might be able to try it again one day when I have exhausted all other possibilities of books….

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13 Angie September 8, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Your review of Room is awesome. It’s on my list of books to read and your description makes me realize I would HATE this book. However, I still know I’d love A Stolen Life so I’m excited to read it! (Is “love” the proper word? Seems morbid. I would be fascinated by it, I suppose.)

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14 Karrie April 3, 2012 at 12:21 am

I loved the Room and Stolen Life! While child abduction freaks me out as my two girls were a close call at a grand opening of Marshalls years ago, i have always been drawn to stories like Jaycees, Elizabeth Smart, Adam etc. Read “still life” by Joy Fielding as well as her book called “see Jane run”…… You will be hooked! Let me know what you think….. I’m looking for another book along these lines as I retrain my brain to retain a book- just had brain surgery, a tumor removed so it’s part of the process to my healing!

Let me know if you think of any good books to check out along these lines, thanks karrie

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