three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-The Room and the ChairNovelist, critic, and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Lorraine Adams, who worked for the Washington Post for 11 years, explored terrorism and the experience of Algerian immigrants--Arab Muslims--to the United States in her award-winning debut novel Harbor (2004).

The Story: When fighter pilot Mary Goodwin is ejected from a jet over the Potomac River after 9/11, she is badly injured, and the accident is quickly hushed up. But the story reaches the Washington Spectator, where the night editor and rookie reporter Vera Hastings suspect that the crash might have been part of a covert spy operation. Others--including Will Holmes, head of a secret intelligence program--are determined to conceal the truth. As the action moves from Washington, D.C., to Afghanistan, Iraq, Dubai, and Iran, and from newspaper reporters to nuclear engineers, a disturbing tale of government secrecy and Washington-style journalism--always compelling, not always honest--emerges.
Knopf. 315 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307272416

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Room and Chair is a breed apart: a novel that combines the meticulous reportage of Bernstein and Woodward's All the President's Men (1974) with the spellbinding poetry and creepy political intrigue of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (1946). ... Then, too, there is her vivisection of life inside the newsroom--‘The Room'--of a Washington paper: nothing less than a minor miracle of social anthropology." Kirk Davis Swinehart

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[O]ne of the triumphs of this book is that it's a war novel that's mostly about women: Mary, Mabel and Baby as well as Vera, the reporter and truth seeker. Though often unwitting tools and even more often thwarted, they are the fulcrum of the book, lifting what might otherwise be a dazzling thriller into the realm of literature." Amy Wilentz

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"It's an inside scoop that reads--given its large cast of characters, its numerous locales and its labyrinthine plot twists--like a much bigger book than its tidy 315 pages. ... Adams has constructed a disturbing tale of rampaging patriotism, governmental treachery and journalism's often-acquiescent role in the Washington shell game." Steve Bennett

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"No readers will rejoice at this story's conclusion, and no A-list actors will be clamoring to play any of its compromised people. ... [I]f The Room and the Chair isn't a complete success, it manages to be more interesting than many genre novels that do succeed because Adams is so smart about how official Washington works and because ... she is so fascinated by how information conceals the world from us." Louis Bayard

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]n the end, Adams can't seem to decide what she wants The Room and the Chair to be--a corporate drama about the newspaper business? A John le Carré-esque spy novel? A story about flyboys on the front lines of the war on terror?" Joshua Hammer

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"What is so puzzling about her novel ... is that interspersed with linguistic excess are profound insights into how newspapers actually operate and stretches of dialogue that are as spare and pitch-perfect as anything written by Hemingway or Waugh. Yet the cumulative effect of Adams' prose left this reader mentally exhausted." Alan Littell

Critical Summary

Critics agreed that as a political and psychological thriller and newspaper and war novel, The Room and the Chair is "so topical it could be ripped from tomorrow's headlines" (San Antonio Express-News). Although it might not cohere as well as Harbor, it continues the latter's compelling inquiries into terrorism, duplicity, government secrets, and Islamic extremism. However, reviewers disagreed over the writing and plot. Some cited Adams's style as convoluted and overwritten, while others praised her powers of perception; some noted that although Adams renders newsroom politics and culture perfectly, other subplots never fully converge. Still, The Room and the Chair offers an all-too-real--and frightening--insight into our times. If the inner workings of Washington and the practice of journalism within the nation's capitol appeal, this book is for you. Otherwise ...