ROOM by Emma Donoghue

I know that I tend to read depressing books, but I seem to be on an especially depressing tear of late. The last few books I have read have been about the following: a woman dying a terrible death from cancer, a girl who disappeared, conjoined girl twins who die, a hermaphrodite, another girl who disappears, a young mother whose baby dies of SIDS, and a woman who so desires to be the librarian of her own night bookmobile that she gives her life to do so. Jeez.

Room, by Emma Donoghue, may take the cake, though. It is about a woman who was abducted at age 19 and confined to a 12×12 shed for 7 years, along with the son she gave birth to in captivity. Definitely a depressing, ripped-from-the-headlines premise. But I am so glad I read Room – it's an excellent book.

Ma (whose name we never learn), spends the first five years of her son Jack's life protecting him from knowing about the circumstances in which they live. The first third or so of Room explores the lengths Ma goes to to create a joyful, stimulating, and comforting life in their prison of a home. Jack, who narrates the book, takes the reader through typical days in Room, which include running laps on Rug, feeding Plant, creating toys out of recycled trash, looking through Skylight, reading one of his five books, and sleeping in Wardrobe. Ma has given in to her captor's nightly visits with the resignation and veneer of a Stepford wife, as she explains after their escape, in exchange for his promise that he will never set eyes on her son (she is careful never to acknowledge him as a parent).

Jack is precocious and smart, but he  is also a boy who has never set foot on the earth or spoken to a single human being other than his mother. Once he and Ma make it Outside, his world becomes overwhelmingly confusing, with sensory overload and a literal collapse of his worldview. Donoghue's exploration of how Jack and Ma re-enter (well, "enter" is more appropriate for Jack) society, and how they are received by an intrusively curious American public, is riveting.

Room-by-Emma-Donoghue Room is an exhilarating, captivating and moving book, and reflects Donoghue's immense creativity and her compassion for her two main characters. Sometimes I was frustrated by Ma's seeming insensitivity to Jack's many, many questions and fears upon leaving Room, but I think that insensitivity is probably realistic. Ma is human, after all, and has the right to care for herself and her own needs after so many years of protecting and servicing (literally) others.

I don't want to say much more, for doing so might deny others the full impact of reading Room. I know, the topic is off-putting. But Room is so much more than a sensational plot. It is a psychological thriller, and a tender story of a mother's love, and a commentary on our modern lives, all rolled into one.

I totally agreed with Ron Charles's review of Room in The Washington Post, if you'd like to hear someone else gushing over this book. Or just scan the Amazon comments – wow.

Why, hello there, FTC! Oh, this old book? I got an ARC of Room last May at BEA. Can't believe I didn't read it until now.

18 Comments

  • September 27, 2010 - 3:01 am | Permalink

    I love your reading on ROOM. It is hard to tell people how amazing this book is without giving too much away. It really is a fantastic book – so much to think about and discuss.
    I thought Ma was incredibly patient with answering all of Jack’s questions actually – I was impressed as a parent. I don’t think I have that kind of patience! But she also had time….something that was discussed in the book. They had nothing but TIme in Room.
    When they emerged into Outside, I think Ma was incredibly overloaded as well. And she reached her limit (obviously). It would be so interesting to see what Jack looked like as an adult. Would you ever get over something like that? Kids are pretty resilient, but this situation was extreme.
    GREAT book.

  • September 27, 2010 - 9:29 am | Permalink

    I’ve read so many great things about this book, but I just can’t bring myself to read it.

  • September 27, 2010 - 11:03 am | Permalink

    Loved the book and love your blog site! It is so beautifully organized!

  • September 27, 2010 - 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Emma Donoghue here. I quite agree, Ma gets cranky in Outside: because she can afford to. I suppose my hope is that, by that point in the book, readers will have developed enough loyalty to her that they’ll bear with her all-too-human falling apart…
    Note to those who can’t bring themselves to read ROOM: it won’t leave you depressed, I promise. I wouldn’t do that to my ideal busy-mom reader…

  • September 28, 2010 - 8:40 am | Permalink

    Wow! Great review. I loved the book, and it is NOT the kid of book I typically pick up. I’m glad it was part of the FLTW book club.

  • Melissa
    September 28, 2010 - 9:57 am | Permalink

    NPR interviewed the author yesterday and I got to listen to almost all of it on the way home – I can’t resist the buzz on this book – it’s on my TBR list!!

  • September 28, 2010 - 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I want to read this one but I know that I need to be in a certain mood to pick it up. I tend to go for depressing books myself but not because I like dark, depressing topics, just because those types of books tend to have more issues to discuss.

  • September 29, 2010 - 10:49 am | Permalink

    Gayle, We are discussig Room tonight for the Manic Mommies Book Club. We are still hoping the author might join us – she confirming her schedule.
    Talk about dark… this fall I read Still Missing (abduction and you feel the pain/agony), i’d know you anywhere (a woman who was abducted, 20 years later her abductor reaches out to her while on death row) and then Room!
    Great review!

  • September 29, 2010 - 10:58 am | Permalink

    Loved the review! thanks for sharing.

  • September 29, 2010 - 9:01 pm | Permalink

    Nicely done. You give a great perspective of the book without giving too much away. I hope you get off your depressing book kick soon…

  • September 30, 2010 - 6:16 pm | Permalink

    This is not the type of book I normally read. I wasn’t aware that it was also about their life in the real world afterward though, and that part is more appealing to me than the captivity.

  • Ani
    October 7, 2010 - 1:34 am | Permalink

    “and a woman who so desires to be the librarian of her own night bookmobile that she gives her life to do so.” … Wow. That plot’s definitely a bit… out there. & my mind just keeps coming back to the question, “why didn’t she just go to Grad School to become a librarian? Two years & some student loans & she would’ve been set!”
    However, if the author of that book actually managed to execute that plot in a truly heartfelt, touching, depressing manner, then he/she has officially earned my respect!
    &, God, I’ve been looking for an excuse to recommend this book to somebody for ages, & if you’re currently into books on depressing & slightly unconventional topics: Help at Any Cost by Maia Szalavitz. I haven’t read it, because the horrors that book is about were the horrors that every aspect of my life was about for years, & it would just upset me I’m sure. Oh, & you should definitely be forewarned that it’s not a memoir in any tradition form that entertains the same linear plot line from start to finish et. al. , but rather a compilation of true (& definitely depressing) stories that are aimed at informing just as much as it aims at keeping the reader interested & reading [not that the two can’t coincide]. Then again, I haven’t even read the damn book, so I’m just guessing.
    … Fuck, you know, you’re probably just better off reading the reviews of the book on Amazon or something & not dealing with that book in its entirety itself. It’s just an issue I have to promote whenever I can, since it seems no matter what anybody does its simply ignored (a friend of mine killed herself three years ago hoping it would make a difference & shut down at least one of those many horrible programs; however, the program just slandered her senseless & nothing happened whatsoever).

  • October 8, 2010 - 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I loved your review! I may be reading this one tomorrow for the readathon, and I’m looking forward to this even more.

  • October 13, 2010 - 9:44 am | Permalink

    I’m intrigued. Not a book that I would normally read because I have enough to deal with in my own life, but I loved your review, so I will put it on my list.

  • Len
    October 13, 2010 - 4:41 pm | Permalink

    This sounds like another interesting book. I feel like I’ll never get to all the good ones you’ve reviewed.
    Emma–I’m a busy-dad reader. I want to be “ideal” too! 😉

  • October 18, 2010 - 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Great review! I have been looking forward to this novel. I read Donoghue’s Slammerkin and was really captivated by her writing. Can’t wait to read this! Thanks for the post!

  • Susan B
    November 30, 2010 - 8:10 am | Permalink

    I finished this last night, so came back and read your review and the comments in full. I was very impressed by this book. Parts are upsetting, of course, but Jack’s spirit is so delightful that I chuckled a lot while reading. I also thought Grandma was a great character who, like Ma, was overwhelmed but doing her absolute best under the circumstances. I loved the ending, too – it was very moving.

  • Tuvana
    October 3, 2011 - 11:59 am | Permalink

    I really hesitated to read this book as I have little to no tolerance for difficult plots involving children. But I am so happy I read it – what an original, well-written book. It has really stayed with me (Ok, I just finished it yesterday) and really the world does seem a bit different, and I keep thinking of Jack and his thoughts. Loved it.

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