THE ROOM AND THE CHAIR by Lorraine Adams

Book Quote:

“The case of that pilot crashing was only one of many instances when someone at the White House or Pentagon told Adam that blood and treasure—how he despised the words—would be lost if he didn’t hide information that might or might not have been factual.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (FEB 24, 2010)

The talented Lorraine Adams’ debut novel, Harbor, was an absolute tour-de-force. Depicting the lives of Algerian refugees in the United States, it delivered an incredibly moving portrait of men trying to get by—to shake the stigma of being the “other.” Harbor remains one of my favorite books of all time.

Once a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Washington Post, Adams, revisits familiar terrain—international terrorism—in her latest novel, The Room and the Chair. Set alternately in Washington D.C., Iran and the Afghan-Pakistan border, the novel looks at the interplay between the media and the government and how they work together to determine what information the public is really fed.

As the novel opens, Mary Goodwin, a young fighter pilot navigating an F-16 (a Viper) mysteriously crashes near the Potomac in Washington D.C. An extremely competent pilot, she has no idea why all the control panels suddenly failed, why she ended up hanging loose-limbed in a tree yet walked away relatively unscathed. The unexplained accident ends up haunting her till the end.

The incident gets some coverage in the local media but the leading D.C. newspaper, The Washington Spectator, (presumably modeled after the Washington Post where Adams once worked) barely touches it. It’s more than a case of mere oversight though. Turns out the White House specifically called the paper’s executive editor, Adam, and requested that the story be hushed.

The crash is only one part of the story. Related reasons for what went wrong and why are laid out in a massive government report that runs into thousands of pages—put out by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The report, affectionately dubbed the “Sissy Report,” has actually been in the possession of one of the paper’s other key players, Don Grady, for a while now. Grady who came to fame as a stellar reporter in his younger days, now spends much of his time resting on past laurels and saving key bits of “finds” for books he regularly publishes. He decides the Sissy Report too, while it might have some major reveals, deserves wider treatment in his upcoming book. The paper gets nothing. Worse, the paper gets scooped by the competition.

The competition ends up sensationalizing the report focusing on only one controversial detail—neglecting all other facts. “They’ve seized on one little thing, this thing about the president being under surveillance, a thing that doesn’t matter, that happens all the time anyway, but isn’t widely—well—appreciated, and the things that do matter, the new things, they’ve ignored them,” Adams writes in the voice of one of the players. It’s an accurate portrayal of our 24-hour sound-bite journalism.

To understand why the government would want to hide the truth from the pilot, Mary Goodwin, one must understand that she is soon to be recruited to be a part of a special ops assignment. In this assignment she would help a controversial Iranian nuclear scientist, Hoseyn, flee his native country. If Mary had found out the truth behind her accident, she would have surely rejected the Hoseyn assignment—one that is of vital interest to the United States.

The Room And the Chair moves its narrative to Iran describing Hoseyn’s life, detailing how he ends up being a double agent—on the one hand working for the United States while also being faithful to Ahva Pesarah Persis, the Sacred Sons of Persia. “The Pesarah always needed nuclear defectors who could tell of Iranian progress on the bomb and push Washington into an Iranian invasion to topple the regime,” Adams writes in describing this organization’s mission.

The “Chair” in the book’s title refers to Will Holmes, chair of a secret intelligence program called Media Exploitation Component Services—MECS. The program parses data gathered from combat zones around the world and uses it to sharpen U.S. defense strategies. Holmes will also have a critical role to play in the Hoseyn assignment.

As Adams moves between The “Room”—the news reporting well at the paper—and “The Chair,” she gradually lays bare the connections between what initially look like a disparate set of narratives.

She is at her narrative best particularly in the segments set in Iran where the pace and the story are perfectly tied together and work to tell a compelling story. The parts of the story set at the paper too are interesting enough but sometimes there are so many players all vying for power, that it gets confusing to keep track of them all. To keep the pace going, Adams ends up sacrificing detailed character sketches of the principals. This is not to say that they are not described at all—they are. However, in places, one wishes she could have lingered, actually made the story longer so we could find out more about them.

In the end the constant hopping back and forth can make the reader a tad dizzy precisely because each hop could have used a more extended narrative.

The Room And the Chair also has a somewhat shaky start when the writing feels a touch jolting and strained. But after a chapter or two, Adams really comes into form and dazzles. Her writing is as crisp and intelligent as ever. “Vera Hastings walked with Jesus but pacing herself was a forever problem,” she writes of a rookie reporter at the paper. In yet another instance, an “orderly and the nurse were tranquilized by Hoseyn’s lack of visible symptoms.”

Overall, The Room And the Chair is an entertaining and intelligent read. Sometimes it does strain under the weight of its ambitions—the novel could have used some more pages devoted to each narrative arc. But The Room And the Chair is a worthy successor to Harbor. With its depiction of current-day government subterfuge and media collusion, Adams once again proves she has her finger firmly on the pulse of our complicated current events.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; 1 edition (February 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: WSJ interview with Lorraine Adams
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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February 24, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  Â· Posted in: Iran, Thriller/Spy/Caper, Washington, D.C.

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