A STRANGER LIKE YOU by Elizabeth Brundage

Book Quote:

“Good stories. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? That’s why we’re doing this.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (SEP 12, 2010)

Elizabeth Brundage’s third novel A Stranger Like You is her darkest to date. Her first novel The Doctor’s Wife is a tale of a woman married to a doctor who works a women’s clinic and performs abortions. The couple runs foul of anti-abortion activists in this tale which examines marital obligations against the backdrop of larger social issues. Someone Else’s Daughter is set in an exclusive school for the children of the wealthy, but when the protected, elite environment is breeched, various ugly realities seep in. A Stranger Like You is a post-9-11 tale: unrelentingly bleak and merciless in its examination of a decaying society of damaged people.

The novel begins with Hugh Waters, a man who walks out of his life in upstate New York to seek vengeance against Hedda Chase, the Gladiator Film studio executive who rejected his screenplay due to its violence and its implausibility. Hugh kidnaps the woman, and in a bizarre reenactment of the rejected screenplay, he stuffs Hedda in the boot of her car, drives the car to the airport, and dumps it there. The novel follows several threads going back and forth in time through its various characters. One plot line follows Hugh’s actions post kidnapping while another thread picks up what happens to Hedda. Another subplot involves Danny, a damaged Iraqi war veteran and a homeless girl named Daisy. All these characters are set in a collision course of violence through a trick of fate.

Given the plot, the novel is arguably a thriller, but since this isn’t a novel about a bank heist or an international conspiracy, we are left with a story of a crime and what led up to it. This lands us in character-driven territory. Part of the difficulty with the novel is that all the characters are extremely unappealing. That isn’t usually a problem as nasty people tend to spice up the action. But in A Stranger Like You, the characters never get beyond cliché. Even Hedda, the so-called victim and the most developed character in the novel is the abrasive and bitchy Hollywood executive who at one point tells Hugh “you’ll never work in this town.” Danny, the damaged veteran is a bother at home to his aunt who would have preferred he’d died a hero in Iraq so that at least she has bragging rights with her neighbours. Then there’s a young Iraqi woman, an exchange student, who wants to tell her story no matter the price. PTSD, homeless children, and Iraqi women who are appalled at their culture’s treatment of women are all very real, but the characters do not develop beyond labels. Part of the problem is that there is simply too much going on here.

The novel is at its best when exploring Hedda’s relationship to her part-time beau, Tom. Their relationship underscores the novel’s theme of exploitation and is balanced by Hugh’s marriage–yet another relationship based on exploitation. Hugh’s rare tenderness is directed to the have-nots of society while his violence & alienation which seems to be partly emanating from suppressed homosexuality is directed to everyone else. Another issue undeniably connected to the theme of exploitation is violence. Hedda finds it increasingly difficult to work for Gladiator films–a thrill factory of machismo and cheap thuggery, and yet the book dissolves down to the very elements it seems to argue against.

In Brundage’s other two novels (which I enjoyed very much, by the way), the characters are well-developed and entirely believable. They have full lives and multiple relationships while they struggle to cope with hostile social situations. In A Stranger Like You, the social dictates of the characters (their place in time) holds sway, and they seem created just for the moment. Yes they have pasts and they may, in some cases have futures, but in the novel they are cardboard cut-outs moved in rather like chess pieces to support the plot.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 31 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking Adult (August 5, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Elizabeth Brundage
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:Somebody Else’s Daughter

The Doctor’s Wife

Our interview with Elizabeth Brundage


September 12, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: California, Character Driven, Contemporary, Reading Guide, Thriller/Spy/Caper

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