Strangers in Budapest

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 14 Dec 2017

Member Reviews

An enthralling, dark story of Eastern Europe in the 1990s ~ perfect for fans of travel writing and literary suspense stories.

Thanks to Algonquin for the review copy of this title - all opinions are my own. 

I have been fascinated by Budapest after randomly watching an episode of House Hunters International, and have lately been reading more and more about Communism and its impact throughout the world. Those factors definitely lead into my deep appreciation of this story ~ a story equally about a historically significant city as it about family tragedies. The descriptions of the city, language and food were absolutely riveting and I inhaled this book in less than 24 hours. In addition, knowing that this book is largely based on the author's own experiences living in Budapest made it even more fascinating - I loved her essay in the Algonquin Reader about her motivation for this book.

If you want to experience a Eastern European country in a time not-long past, and want detailed history and literary social commentary, this one is a must-read. For suspense fans, this is a slow burn and should be entered into with more of an expectation of a tense, dark drama rather than a fast-paced mystery. Highly recommend to geeky readers like myself!
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This is a compelling story with both suspense and beautiful writing, perfectly paced, and satisfying at the end. I enjoyed the setting and the unfolding of the main character’s dilemma and her interior journey. Highly recommend.
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Set against the fall of the iron curtain in the early 1990s, STRANGERS IN BUDAPEST by Jessica Keener, draws a handful of disaffected people together for a powerful story of human despair and healing.
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I think this book is okay: they pace of the book was weird, the characters are underdeveloped in my taste...
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The style of this book is engrossing, but it fails to take advantage of the sheer scale of scenery available to it based on the setting. I was unfortunately disinterested in the story, which had an awkward pace and began too suddenly.
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I loved this book because it brought back feelings of my life as an expat, approximately around the same time as when this book took place, but in another city. I did travel to Budapest several years before this book was set and it was like going back in time. The story was suspenseful and cathartic at the same time. Highly recommended for anyone who has lived away from home or has met unsavory characters abroad. Reminiscent of The Talents Mr. Ripley.
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One of my favorite things about fiction set in varied locations is the inspiration it provides for me to research the actual place; sadly, I find no such inspiration #StrangersinBudapest by Jessica Keener. I feel that I know as little about Budapest after reading the book as I did before reading the book. That combined with characters I find myself unable to invest in make this not the book for me. 

See my complete review at 

Reviewed for #NetGalley
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Usually, being worldly and having traveled to other locations is a good thing. It allows you to learn more about other cultures, absorb history outside of textbooks, and expand your horizons. However, there are times when having traveled has its drawbacks, like when what you know from firsthand experience does not mirror what authors put into their novels. Not only does it ruin the reading experience for you, it sets a somewhat dangerous precedent for future readers as they will go on to assume the author has done his or her due diligence and is a subject matter expert. This is where I find myself upon reading Jessica Keener's Strangers in Budapest.

Set in 1995 Budapest, the story is about an expat couple that gets involved in a stranger's personal business. The story itself is odd. There is nothing connecting the stranger to the couple other than an old neighbor and a large amount of coincidences. That this young mother would involve herself in someone else's business is laudable but still strange, especially as her son is so young. My problems with the story involve more than the plot, even though I do find it problematic. My problems involve Annie's behavior and how Ms. Keener chooses to portray Budapest.

First, let me address my problems with Annie. She does not want to get to know other expat women because she does not want to limit her circle, but she has no other friends outside of her husband. In that regard, she is a snob, looking down on other Americans spending their time together and thinking herself better than them because she is trying to immerse herself in the environment. I understand wanting the immersion but thinking yourself better than your fellow citizens is pretty rude and lacking in self-awareness. Then she gets involved in this old man's vendetta, which is understandable only given how bored she is even though that is a poor excuse. Lastly, as much as she professes to love her son and adore him (and even obsessively worries about her adoption case handler coming over from the US to tell her the adoption is fake), she is almost never with her son. Most of her interactions involve her leaving him with the babysitter and going off by herself or with her husband. Her thoughts are at odds with her actions, and the frequency with which she left her son with the sitter began to anger me. I never took to Annie as a character, so I might have been projecting my dislike to her actions. Still, when you are looking for reasons to dislike a character even more than you already do, the character is probably not a well-written one.

My biggest issue with the story however is not the character but rather Budapest 1995 as Ms. Keener imagines it. Let me tell you, the Budapest in the novel is not real-life Budapest. The Budapest Ms. Keener describes is very modern and very Western. She mentions some of the Soviet buildings, the cars, and the general air of secrecy, but to me, the mentions are more of an afterthought. Anyone who has traveled to a formerly communist Eastern European country within the last decade knows that the influence of the Soviet regime is still there in some form or another. And we are talking about two to three decades after it all fell apart for the Soviets. In 1995, the influence of the Soviet regime would still be prevalent, not an afterthought. It would appear in every person's actions and reactions and would be felt in every aspect of the culture. Ms. Keener's few mentions hide or ignore what was the single-most influence on that region and one that was not swept away in the course of four years.

If this was not enough of a detraction to an already mediocre story, the appearance and usage of the cell phone was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Ms. Keener has Annie and almost all of the other characters use cell phones as they go about their business in Budapest in 1995. Folks, I lived in Europe in 1998, and I know that while cell phones were a lot more popular in Europe than they were in the United States at that time they were still not the dominating method of communication. I also know that in 1995, cell phone usage was still not a popular thing. In fact, I tested my memory and confirmed that in the United Kingdom in 1995 only seven percent of the population was using them. If the United Kingdom had little cell phone usage in 1995, there is no way that Budapest would have had greater market penetration. The city simply did not have the money or the infrastructure to add cell phone coverage. Given that understanding and background knowledge, once Annie pulled out her cell phone and traded calls with others on their cell phones, I was done.

I am sure my focus on the inaccuracies of the setting of the novel skewed my perceptions of the overall story. However, I do struggle to understand how an author could do so little research into the setting of a novel or make a conscious choice not to make sure the details of the setting are correct. I have never really experienced this sort of thing in any novel, so I am a bit baffled by it. I worry too that other readers of Strangers in Budapest will get the wrong impression about Budapest in the mid-1990s, that they will think cell phone usage was common and that other than stinky cars and a few depressing buildings the city was the same as it is now. The history lover in me despairs at this as something I just cannot overlook. Combine that with a character who frankly drove me batty with her obsessive worries and nosy behavior, and we have a novel that I cannot say I enjoyed in any way.
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A haunting novel of history and suspense, in which the city of Budapest becomes a central character in the unfolding mystery between a young couple and an older man with a complex past. The setting was lovely and the plot was interesting, but I found the characters lacking somewhat in depth. An enjoyable read regardless.
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In this slow-paced thriller an American couple starting a business in Budapest meet an elderly man hunting the son-in-law he believes murdered his daughter.

Strangers in Budapest (Digital galley, Algonquin Books) is part travelogue and part mystery. But the combination doesn't work as odd Wikipedia-sounding entries disguised as narrative pop into the story. (Children who live in Budapest have a 10 percent higher chance of developing asthma than those living in the countryside.)

The story by Jessica Keener unfolds at too slow a pace and seems to circle back on itself, with the characters doing things that don't move the plot forward. Unfortunately it was difficult to become invested in this mystery.
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This book was okay. The premise was intriguing but I found the protagonist, Annie, irritating and the ending was far too predictable. The plot plodded along so it took me longer to finish than I had hoped. It wasn’t my favorite.
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This was on the verge of being interesting but I felt it was a bit repetitive and could have done with some editing.  I also expected a bigger mystery - the climax at the end was over before it started and we were left with more questions than answers.  The premise was interesting as was the setting of Budapest in the 90s.  It was very atmospheric but something was missing - maybe more backstory?  The history/backstory as it was told was one-sided and so we didn't get another perspective, which would have really elevated this book.  I hope you have better luck with it - it definitely had some good parts even if it was a little boring, unexplained and repetitive. 

Strangers in Budapest comes out today November 14, 2017, and you can purchase HERE.

She had run out of things to say. That was her problem. Their problem. This inability to find words to make things better. It was so much easier to say nothing. She felt the seductive pull of it. Stop speaking. Sink into quicksand. Become silent. Pretend things will be okay. Sink into silence as if it could protect her from the noise of life above and all around her. it was an old family habit, this silence. She leaned back in the seat, the music and the wheezing rush of the air conditioner meshing together. Silence was the phantom body in her family.
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I'm giving this book 3 stars.  I have to say overall I was disappointed~ I think the main reason is the lack of character development.  They are all flat.  Really no substance to them, and anything they did seemed as though they couldn't give any forethought to what they were about to do.  We follow the lives of Annie and Will, who have made the decision to move to Hungary so that Will can pursue possible lucrative work options.  At the point we meet them, eight months after their move, not much has happened as far as work and career success.  Are they bored? Possibly.  They receive a seemingly odd message from their former neighbour back home in Massachussetts to check up on an elderly friend of theirs in Hungary.  They do so, and while Will thinks that they are no longer obligated to visit or check up on this man, Annie thinks otherwise.  She becomes fixated on this idea, and from this point it becomes the focus of the story.  Disappointed overall, not a recommendation.
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Will and Annie and their newly adopted son moved to Budapest after the fall of Communism and the departure of the Russians. Will hoped to set up cell phone service in the country. Annie wanted to leave the prying eyes of an invasive Massachusetts social worker assigned to the adoption. However after 8 months in the city, Will was still trying to get approvals for his venture and Annie was getting bored of their life as ex pats. 

So when a neighbor from their old town in the US asked them to look in on an old friend, Annie and Will made the trip across town to the old man’s apartment. There they found Edward, a Jewish World War II veteran, who seemed to be struggling to survive in the hot apartment. Although he refused their help, Annie decided to check in on him at a later date. 

When she did visit Edward again, he asked for her help. It seems that his daughter had died under mysterious circumstances and Edward was sure that the daughter’s husband had murdered her. Then the husband, a man with family in Hungary, moved to Budapest. So Edward traveled from Massachusetts to Budapest to confront the man. Partially because  of her boredom and partially because she had lost a brother as a result of a tragic accident, Annie agreed to help. Little did she know that the information she provided for Edward would lead to a tragic ending. 

The author describes Budapest and the communal personality of the Hungarian people in detail. She gives the reader a real insight into the lives of the people in a country that had survived   oppression under Hitler and then under the  Russians in the 20th century. There are many historical references and the reader learns about Hungarian attitudes and prejudices as well.
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Best read as a novel about American expats trying to make a new life in 1990s Budapest,  Keener, regrettably, added an odd revenge tale to the story of Annie and Will, who are having a tough go.  Edward is convinced his son in law murdered his daughter and is determined to make him pay.  This part of the story, where Anne goes all in, didn't work for me,  Interesting concept but stupid on her part and frankly, Edward didn't impress me as someone to go to the wall for.  Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.
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A beautifully written story of a young couple and their child's escape to Budapest to try and leave their past but  they realize there is no escaping who you are.
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So, yeah.  This is a little awkward.

This review is of Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener.  Full disclosure: I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

So, fair and honest it will be.

I didn’t like this book very much.  I gave it 2 stars on Goodreads.  I see that others liked it quite a bit and I respect that and I’m not going to trash it, but I just didn’t like it very much at all.  I’m not someone who goes to a restaurant looking for things to nitpik.  I want to be pleased.  I just wasn’t.

To work on the positive side, the book did eventually work itself up to a dramatic conclusion which was good to read.

Beyond that, though, I just found the storytelling incredibly stilted and awkward.

For example, the following construction occurs over and over in the book:

“You’re a man of questions this morning,” Bernardo said to Will, obviously enjoying Will’s interrogations.

First, that’s an awkward way for someone to talk, but the tag on the end is just very difficult for a reader, in my opinion.  It separates the reader from the story and the action.  I just think it would be stronger if it actually was obvious, as opposed to having it explained.  And, this construction is used over and over in the book.

Second, people who have commented on the book feel like Budapest became a character in the book.  That was clearly the objective–to portray it as a kind of inscrutable city with a lot of secrets and a dark, hidden side.  Having said that, while I understood that was the idea, I never really felt it.  I read Leaving Berlin recently, and that book captured a city way better than this one did, as did Gentlemen in Moscow.

Also, all the dark actions taken were taken by Americans living in Budapest, so maybe it isn’t Budapest that was dark.

Speaking of which, there’s an overly broad scene where American women who live in Budapest talk just the way you’d expect them to.

And, at one point, a main character–an American–talks about Budapest like he ate a Wikipedia entry about the city.  And a chain-smoking “escort” is thrown into the story for no apparent reason.

Anyway, other people have enjoyed this book.  I wasn’t one of them, but people’s views can vary.
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I was first drawn to this book by the idea of an American couple along with their infant son moving to Budapest right after the fall of the communist regime. That story alone would have led me to read this book, but then you also throw in an elderly World War II veteran who saved countless Hungarian Jews from Nazi camps that is in Budapest for mysterious reasons and I knew I had to read this book.

Annie and Will along with their newly adopted infant son move to Budapest in 1995. Will is trying to start a company that will help the citizens of Budapest. The couple soon find that things move very slowly in Budapest and that the leaders of cities say things they don't mean and move on plans at a snails pace. 

Eight months into living in Budapest Annie and Will receive a request from their former neighbor in America to check on a friend who is staying in their flat in Budapest. He is an elderly gentleman who isn't in great health and since it's been very hot in the city the neighbor is worried about him.

"Temperatures had turned lethal these past weeks. The summer of 1995 was breaking records for the longest stretch of days over ninety degrees, according to Radio Free Europe, the station she listened to every morning since coming here eight months ago. Already a dozen elderly had died. More deaths expected, no end in sight, the announcer had warned in the Euro-British broadcaster's accent she'd grown accustomed to."

Annie and Will set off in the heat with their son, Leo, to check on Mr. Weiss. They found him alive and enduring the heat. He did seem ill and Annie was very worried about him. Annie convinced Edward to let her check in on him. Soon Annie is drawn in to caring for Edward Weiss and also the story of why he's in Budapest.

Edward lost his oldest daughter, Deborah, a few months prior. He is convinced that Deborah's husband is to blame for her death. He has come all the way to Budapest to search out the husband and seek revenge for the death of his daughter. But, now that he's there his health is declining and he's having a hard time getting around.

Annie is unsure of Edward's story, but she's willing to help an elderly man. I got the sense that Annie liked being needed. She hadn't made many friends in Budapest and now she had a friend and someone who needed her help.

I was not expecting the twist this book takes! After being shown a picture of Deborah's husband by Edward Annie realizes that she knows him, but he goes by a different name in Budapest than he did in The States. Things quickly spiral out of control and I breathlessly flipped pages through the last portion of this book! 

"How had she allowed herself to be so convincingly deceived? Could she really blame it on the fact that she was a woman feeling estranged in a stranger's land?"

I highly recommend Strangers in Budapest! It is a book with a great setting and a story that kept me guessing until the very end.
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The book’s premise, the descriptions of the landscape, and the insights into the culture of Hungary are all engaging. The scene of plot resolution is intense and effective. There were just too many inconsistencies in the writing quality and sections that felt drawn out unnecessarily for the book to go beyond mediocre for me.
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What a great premise and setting but, sadly, so badly done.  There was nothing literary about this, either. The main character was dense and overwrought and the prose repetitious enough that I nearly didn’t finish it.  My own stubbornness and the question of how the author was going to tie everything up were the only things that keep me going but again I was disappointed in the mishandling of an interesting concept. A lot of the writing felt like filler and felt distant, though conversely the husband was one of the most one-dimensional characters I’ve read this year.  I wish the author had invested as much in her characters as she did in the setting.
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