Strangers in Budapest/Jessica Keener: reflections

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

I am of the age of accumulations. Impressions, dreams, realizations, friends. A clarified sense of the stuff of life that I willfully carry forward.

Jessica Keener is part of that accumulation—a photographer who posts bright blooming flower images on dark national days, a woman with whom I once sat eating cupcakes in a Boston shop, a writer whose books I have read, a friend with whom I talked long one Saturday at noon, me on my phone in my Pennsylvania study, she on her phone in her Boston.

I've written about Jessica and her books before. I've written about them here.

Today I'm writing about Jessica again because her second novel, Strangers in Budapest, is due out in less than a week, and good things are happening all around. The Chicago Review of Books and Real Simple have both named the novel an essential November read. The independent bookstores are ecstatic. Boston Magazine called Jessica's story "perfect page-turner for late autumn," while Publishers Weekly called the book "riveting" and "memorable."

I have risen at 3 AM these past few days to read Strangers in Budapest through. I'd heard some of the stories of its making, heard of Jessica's great gratitude for her agent and editor and publicist and early readers, heard Jessica speak of her relationship to this tale.

But every reader makes a story new and so I read this propulsive story about a young American couple in a sizzling-hot Budapest of 1995 with great eagerness to find out for myself just what is happening here. As the story opens, Annie, the wife, is becoming involved with an old man who is on the hunt for the man he believes married then murdered his wheelchair-bound daughter—and later absconded with her money. Annie has secrets of her own, and concerns about her husband's thus-far less-than-successful forays into Hungarian business opportunities. Chased by her own past, Annie wants to do good. But will good come from falling in with this old man's quest? And will Annie be culpable for the consequences?

The story moves quickly—the lives of seeming strangers soon entangling, the mysteries never black or white, the confusions amplified by a city of Gypsies and a melodic language and empty herringbone-floored apartments opening to remarkable (but historically compromised) views. Budapest of 1995 is no mere backwash in this novel. It is, in many ways, the engine—the devastating history, the east versus the west, the strange mayoral politics, the trade-offs and tarnish.

Jessica has written it all with the knowledge of one who did indeed live in Budapest years ago—as one who walked those floors and saw those monuments and watched those lights on the castle at night. She has written the novel authoritatively, I'm saying—a psychologically suspenseful, fast-moving story in which all the pieces and parts come movingly together.  

Strangers in Budapest is best read right now, when the chill in this November air will offset the heat on the pages.


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