TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez's Reviews > Room

Room by Emma Donoghue
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Ever since its Booker nomination (it made the shortlist), Room by Irish writer Emma Donoghue has set the literary world on fire. Most people who review the book seem to love it. They talk about how riveting and suspenseful the book is and how they felt compelled to finish it in a single reading. I guess I’ll have to be one of the few dissenting voices. I really, really, really disliked Room and yes, I do have specific reasons why.

I can’t imagine anyone not knowing the basic plot of Room, but for those who don’t, the book was inspired by the true story of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman who had been imprisoned in her father’s basement for twenty-four years, during which time he repeatedly assaulted and raped her. She eventually bore him seven children and had one miscarriage. Three of her children, one daughter and two sons had been imprisoned with their mother for the whole of their lives (until rescue).

Room takes its basic plot from the Fritzl case as well as the cases of Jaycee Lee Dugard in California and of Natascha Kampusch and Sabine Dardenne.

Room is narrated by a young boy, Jack, who has just “celebrated” his fifth birthday. Jack has never known a human being other than his mother, who he calls “Ma.” “Ma,” we come to learn, was abducted one night at age nineteen on her way to the school library. For the past seven years she’s been held captive in a garden shed fitted with soundproofed cork, lead-lined walls, and a coded metal security door and raped repeatedly by her captor, a man she calls “Old Nick.” Two years into her abduction, “Ma” gave birth to a son, the five-year-old Jack mentioned above.

We soon learn that “Ma” has tried to make life as normal and as sane as possible for Jack as one can in a room that measures 11x11. She holds “Phys Ed” classes for Jack in the morning and tries to ensure that he gets some exercise. She insists that they keep to strict mealtimes. They do have a TV, and though “Ma” limits Jack’s TV watching just like any good parent would do, it is from TV that Jack learns about the outside world, that he learns the stories that “Ma” entertains him with are true ones. However, despite the fact that Jack has access to television, he really isn’t aware that anything exists outside of “Room.” Even “Old Nick” isn’t “real” to Jack because Jack’s always safe in “Wardrobe” when “Old Nick” comes through “Door.” All Jack really knows about “Old Nick” is that he “brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats.... I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer.”

I have to admit, I’ve never been fond of books narrated by children, but Room, for me, was especially odious. “Ma” has created characters out of all the objects in “Room” and Jack refers to them as though they are real, living, breathing persons. There’s “Wardrobe” and “Rug” and “Plant” and “Meltedy Spoon.” One page of this is bad enough, but an entire book? It took a lot of determination for me to finish the thing. Here’s Jack describing a typical day in “Room”:

We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser.... I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that’s nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus.

Waterfall the milk??????

Regarding his TV watching, Jack says:

I'd love to watch TV all the time, but it rots our brains. Before I came down from Heaven Ma left it on all day long and got turned into a zombie that's like a ghost but walks thump thump. So now she always switches off after one show, then the cells multiply again in the day and we can watch another show after dinner and grow more brains in our sleep.

And here’s Jack talking about some “quiet time” with “Ma”:

I get on Ma’s lap in Rocker with our legs all jumbled up. She’s the wizard transformed into a giant squid and I’m prince JackerJack and I escape in the end. We do tickles and Bouncy Bouncy and jaggedy shadows on Bed Wall.

Well, a paragraph of that here and there might have worked, but a whole half of a book? Not on your life. And this is a kid who can sing along to Eminem and Woody Guthrie music videos. He knows the latest dances. He listens to people speak on TV. His own mother, the only person with whom he converses, speaks normally. He uses words like “rappelling” and “hippopotami” with ease. Heck, he even knows more about the fall of the Berlin Wall than many Germans. So what’s with the almost unintelligible baby talk? I know he’s only five, but other than his horrendous speech, he seems to be a very precocious five. And please. How many rundowns of “Dora the Explorer” or “Spongebob Squarepants” can one reader take without wanting to throw the book across the room?

(From here on this review will contain minor plot spoilers. Please don’t continue reading if plot spoilers will ruin the book for you.)

The story of Room is split into two parts, the first part occurring in “Room” and the second part occurring “Outside” after “Ma” and Jack escape. The escape is, to put it mildly, totally ludicrous. For a kid who doesn’t even believe the outside world exists, to do what Jack did is beyond belief. It’s like Donoghue didn’t know what she wanted her book to be – the claustrophobic story of captivity inside a small room and how it limits the emotional and intellectual growth of a five-year-old or how a five-year-old who’s been imprisoned in an 11x11 room all his life can mature and be a hero. None of us, including Donoghue, can have it both ways.

Once we realize that Jack and “Ma” (we never do learn her name) are being held captive, one would think that Room would take on a sinister, suspenseful atmosphere and leave us wondering what “Old Nick” is going to do next. Instead, it’s painfully boring and slow going and almost totally lacking in suspense. Because Donoghue confines her point of view, at least in the first half of the book, to Jack, the insight we get is painfully mundane, and well, boring. When we finally reach the unbelievable “escape” from “Room,” it all feels forced and shallow and contrived.

Some people have made the remark that Donoghue captures perfectly the voice of a young child. I don’t think she does. I don’t even think she captures perfectly the voice of a young child who’s been imprisoned and cut off from the world for all of his five years of life. However, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that Donoghue does capture a five-year-old’s speech pattern perfectly. How many books written by five-year-olds do you find engrossing and enlightening? My bet is none. Five-year-olds can be cute in small doses and of course we love them and want the best for them, but let’s be truthful, they really aren’t very insightful or interesting for long periods of time, and neither is Jack.

And then, after the totally implausible “escape” from “Room,” Donoghue fails to explore, with deep insight, the ramifications of reentering a world from which one’s been absent for seven years, or in Jack’s case, a world he’s never known. I felt Donoghue glossed over this difficult transition. I felt the second half of the book lacked depth just as the first half did, though in a different way. What does “Ma” feel now that she’s free? Is she going to reunite with her own parents? (Her mother refused to accept “Ma’s” seeming death, while her father needed to do so and even held a funeral for her.) Is she going to introduce them to their grandson and him to them? Being held in captivity for years, then introduced/reintroduced to the outside world is going to be traumatic for anyone, but for some mysterious reason, Donoghue doesn’t want to explore the rich store of human emotions she could have mined. There was a curious disconnect between the intense trauma “Ma” and Jack would have had to suffer and the blitheness with which Donoghue relates their story.

And what of the unnatural bond, truly reminiscent of that in “Psycho,” formed between Jack and “Ma” while in “Room?” Yes, I realize that two people imprisoned together for years are going to form a deep bond, but once those people are freed, especially if they are a twenty-six year old mother and her five-year-old son, then some separation and setting of boundaries is going to be necessary in order to promote mental and emotional health. But Donoghue never explores this facet of “Ma’s” and Jack’s captivity, though clearly, she realized it exists. At one point, Jack says of himself, “Maybe I’m a human, but I’m a me-and-Ma as well.” That outlook might have served him well in “Room” but it’s a dangerous one to cultivate in “Outside.”

Donoghue took a real risk with Room and I applaud her for her courage. I think this is going to be a very polarizing book – people will probably either love it or hate it. They will feel it worked wonderfully or they will feel it didn’t work at all. Obviously, for me, it didn’t work at all. I thought the premise was wonderful, but I felt Donoghue failed to deliver. I honestly can’t understand how this book even made the Booker longlist, let alone the shortlist. I expect more depth and insight from a Booker nominated work. Do I think Donoghue was a lazy storyteller with Room? I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do think she capitalized on gimmicks and topicality, and I was very disappointed. In the end, the whole thing felt like a cheap trick to me, and after reading it, I felt like I had to go take a long, hot shower.


Recommended: No.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 6, 2010 – Finished Reading
November 8, 2010 – Shelved
November 8, 2010 – Shelved as: booker-nominees-and-winners
November 8, 2010 – Shelved as: books-i-did-not-like
November 8, 2010 – Shelved as: contemporary-authors
November 8, 2010 – Shelved as: irish-literature
November 8, 2010 – Shelved as: literary-fiction

Comments Showing 1-50 of 218 (218 new)

message 1: by Monica (new)

Monica Don't make your shower too hot, it's not good for the skin.
5 star review Gabrielle, thank you very much.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez Thanks so much, Monica.

I don't really take showers, I take baths, and I have to confess, I do like them hot even though I know it's not the best for the skin. It's just so relaxing for me.

message 3: by Monica (new)

Monica You really take the time to go in depth and explain why you have the opinions you do. You are extremely convincing and a tremendous writer. I appreciate the time you take writing your reviews.

Christina Thanks for the excellent review. You put all of my opinions of this book, much more eloquently than I could ever write!

Kellie Smith Thanks, Gabrielle. You hit the nail on the head. Wonderful idea, but it failed. For me. I thought it was lazy, rushed...the escape was unrealistic to me. There needed to be some kind of slip-up in the plan. And yes, his vocab in narrating the story went from child prodigy to baby talk, constantly. I have two boys, and not one of them has talked like that since they were two. It was kind of insulting to me. LOL. Thanks for the excellent review!

Lucy For someone who didn't like the book you took an awfully long time dissecting it. In my opinion any text that caused such an emotional response in a reader, even negative, has succeeded.

Valerie I couldn't have said it better. In fact in my review I didn't but I totally agree with your review of this book.

What I can't understand is how so many thought the book was wonderful!

Gretchen Yeah Lucy- that's what I was going to say too. And anyone who thinks time with a 5 year old isn't insightful or enlightening to our own grownup clouded perspective is missing something.

Samantha Gretchen wrote: "Yeah Lucy- that's what I was going to say too. And anyone who thinks time with a 5 year old isn't insightful or enlightening to our own grownup clouded perspective is missing something."

Very much agreed. We've all been five, but somehow we still have a lot to learn from them.

message 10: by Jen (new) - added it

Jen Knox This is a really great review. I too tend to avoid books narrated by small children just for the reasons you stated above. The examples you've given, it seems, suggest that I will not like this book. I am curious about it, but it seems as though it would be tough to get through. I think I'll wait until it's available at the library.

Jerome Parisse I agree with you, Gabrielle. I just finished reading the book and am about to write a brief review for it. But you said very well what I feel about it. Well done.

message 12: by Nikki (new) - rated it 1 star

Nikki An excellently written review, wish I'd read it before I wasted money on this book - silly me - but one expects a reasonable standard from a book that's been Booker shortlisted. I think the problem lies in the fact that this is not a product of the author's imagination nor is it a true story, I find it somewhat upsetting and somehow a sign of the times that a poorly written book based on other people's misery so easily becomes a best seller.

Belknits You said, "He uses words like “rappelling” and “hippopotami” with ease. Heck, he even knows more about the fall of the Berlin Wall than many Germans. So what’s with the almost unintelligible baby talk?"

Well, as a mother of a 4-year old, I can tell you that I thought this book seemed very realistic in terms of the linguistics! Jack was able to play "Parrot" (copy people on tv) because that's how children learn, by imitation. So it's no wonder he knew many long words without having the sentence structure to match. And, after putting all 3 of my kids into speech therapy, I know that as a mom, I completely understood my kids (with their strange ways of speaking) and didn't realize other people couldn't!

I loved the way Jack's thought process was all over the place, from one topic to the next in an instant. I have this experience with my son - he can be talking about something with me one minute, then thinking, then come up with something else and I have no idea where it came from.

message 14: by Lucy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lucy Belknits wrote: "You said, "He uses words like “rappelling” and “hippopotami” with ease. Heck, he even knows more about the fall of the Berlin Wall than many Germans. So what’s with the almost unintelligible baby t..."

message 15: by Lucy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lucy I agree, Belknits. I also thought Jack's portrayal was believable and poignant.

Emily Moore I agree with you about the rescue... to me that scene ruined the book for me. It would NOT have been that fast, nor that smooth!

message 17: by Ruth (new) - rated it 1 star

Ruth Good review, Gabrielle. And right on the nose.

Katie I couldn't have said it better!

message 19: by Tara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tara So, did you not read the second half? All of the questions you brought up were explored. Also, Ma's name is Sharon. Just saying...

message 20: by Amy (new)

Amy Thanks - you just saved me a month off of book club! I will pass on this book. I had reservations and you sealed the deal :) Not interested

message 21: by Kim (new) - rated it 1 star

Kim freeman The worst most iritating book I have had the misfortune to read.

Sandy Thank you for the very well thought out review. I just finished this book and it nearly drove me crazy to do so. I was disappointed after reading so many positive reviews and was glad others saw the many flaws in this book. The inconsistencies were so obvious, I wanted to go through and document them - but thanks to your review you have done that beautifully! I have 3 boys and I can tell you that is not the way a 5 year old talks. on one hand Jack was speaking more along the lines of a 3 year old (truck ran into Wall splat", and the next moment he is making astute advanced observations. You can't have it both ways. I felt the author tried to make Jack more endearing with some of the repeated phrases (e.g. "meltedy spoon") but this got irritating fast. Also as some have mentioned the inconsistencies in place - I thought for a long time they were in the UK or Ireland due to the many terms (Wardrobe; "stabilizers" for training wheels, and what girl stunted at the 19 year old level would call it "Duvet"?). These inconsistencies were distracting at best, making the character and story not believable.The callousness/stupidity of the family members' only a week after the escape was also not believable.

stacy I believe that having children, or vast experience with children or child development, would be a prerequisite to appreciating Jack and the beauty of the narration.

message 24: by Tara (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tara Sandy wrote: "Thank you for the very well thought out review. I just finished this book and it nearly drove me crazy to do so. I was disappointed after reading so many positive reviews and was glad others saw ..."

The author is Irish, so I wouldn't be surprised that this book takes place overseas. It actually might explain a lot of the words that are used.

message 25: by Mark (last edited Feb 01, 2011 07:30AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark I think the discrepancy between Jack's and Ma's respective ways of speaking can be easily inferred as intentional within the context of Jack's fifth birthday, at the very beginning of the book, marking a turning point for Ma; she feels that it's time to strip away the psychologically protective lies. It seems obvious to me that, in tandem with revealing hard truths, she would begin to speak consistently like an adult. The baby talk's being extended past the usual point is in keeping with the extended period of breastfeeding; both are overcompensating ways of protecting Jack's innocence in light of such a horrific situation. And elements such as this need to pick up on inference -- which apparently is easily misread as an inconsistency -- are precisely the reason that I think this book warrants praise. The temptation to ease things for the reader by providing exposition beyond Jack's perspective -- which would have *killed* the book -- was resisted commendably well.

Valerie I totally disagree. It wasn't just the way Jack spoke or that he was still being breast feed at five. Children are curious by nature and Jack, as intellengent as he was did not appear to be. The first thing tha rang unture for me was in the beginning of the book when Jack was talking about his Ma. He made a statement about a book she only read when she was desparate. He can't concieve of a life outside of Room but he understands what desparate means. Please. The baby talk din't bother me so much as his actions. I also agree with the feeling of another reader who pointed out how her family reacted. That to me was totally unbelievable. That is not to say they wouldn't feel Jack shouldn't have been born but to react like that when their daughter first comes home is unbelievable.

Remember this was supposed to be a thiller/suspense. For it to be considered suspenseful it needs to be believable. For me it was not. It was not believable or susepeneful.

I guess that is one of the wonderful things about books and living in the United States. We can read what we want and are free to express our feeling about what we have read. With this particular book, I just don't get why so many think it was a good book.

message 27: by Mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark I agree that the the family's reaction was off. The escape was rushed and too tidy, as well. These points, along with a few groaning instances of obvious heart-string tugging, prevented me from giving it a perfect score.

I personally didn't find that Jack's ability to understand relatively sophisticated emotional states to be at odds with his illusions about Room, because he has no reason to doubt anything Ma tells him. This doesn't mean that he's simple or isn't perceptive, just that he lacks a normal frame of reference. And his actions and explanations seemed reasonable to me.

Agreed to disagree! Fun to quarrel a bit.

Adrianna Great review...captured my feelings about the book!

message 29: by Sketchbook (new)

Sketchbook No Room: Now for a book 'told' by someone who can't read.

message 30: by Cassandra (new) - added it

Cassandra Barboza I find it incredibly astonishing that everyone has commented on Jack's language. Yes Jack knows a lot about the world and might know more about the Berlin Wall than the Germans but that only comes into play because they are facts. To Jack the Berlin Wall isn't real and he truly has no idea what Germans are. Just because he knows a fact about something doesn't mean he truly understands what it is. He has no real frame of reference. He does have a frame of reference for what a wardrobe is because Wardrobe is in Room. And even then he has no idea that there are other wardrobes outside of his room. To the people that say he treats objects like people, all I have to say is yes because to him they are like people. When all your life is lived in a small room with no outside contact you're world is made up of what is in it and the constant things gain capital letters of importance like names of people. It astonishes me that people focus on the fact that a five year old doesn't act like this but tell me when have you ever met a five year old that has only ever lived in a room for all of his life? Jack's language in my mind seems very accurate because he plays with his language because he does not have people around him constantly fixing his grammar and he is a child (many children play with words because they can even when they know the correct term, I think it is the beauty of language and childhood). He can say "meltedy spoon" with no one telling him that is wrong and his mother can even indulge him in his word choice because he is still a child. He can only describe the world how he understands it. I just can't see how people comment on how inaccurate the book was because of his language when how can anyone truly know what a child who has lived in this condition might really speak like? It is preposterous to say it is inaccurate solely based on this. I liked the book. And it is fine that people didn't like it but I find that it is ludicrous to judge a book solely because you believe the imprisoned child's vocabulary isn't that of a normal five year old, let me remind you, he isn't a normal five years old.

Valerie Cassandra:

I agree the book wasn't bad just becuase of the language. It was bad because there were so many other things that wer unbeliveable. Meltedy spoon was the problem. I did have a problem in the beginning of the book when he mentioned a book his mother read only when she was desparate. Following your logic he would not have known what desparate meant.

The premise for the book was really good it just couldn't hold water. One thing we do agree on is that we are both entitled to our opinion. My opinion is the book was one of the worst I have ever read.

message 32: by Amy (new) - rated it 1 star

Amy Excellent review, totally encapsulates my feelings towards the book.

It was a book club read for me and I only managed to force my way to the end so that I could slate it fairly at our meeting in a couple of weeks..

If only I could have a word with the Booker panel as well - I'd love to know what they were thinking?!

It is without doubt, one of the most over-rated, disappointing and cringe-worthy books I have ever had the misfortune to read. Definitely has to go down in history as the weakest book on the Booker shortlist..

message 33: by Lisa (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lisa You so eloquently summed up my thoughts on this book. Thanks for that excellent review!

message 34: by Michelle (new)

Michelle I simply cannot get into this. The boy seems much too sweet to be real and I am completely put off by all the Jesus talk. Is it just because I'm (completely nonobservant but nevertheless) Jewish? My friends all love this book but....I just started Mindblind about a teen with Asperger's.....far more believable and less cloying.

The Pfaeffle Journal (Diane) Lucy wrote: "For someone who didn't like the book you took an awfully long time dissecting it. In my opinion any text that caused such an emotional response in a reader, even negative, has succeeded."

agreed - if a writer can outrage a reader that much - then it is a job well done.

message 36: by Michelle (new)

Michelle A text succeeds with me if I read it; I wouldn't have read even 5 pages if my friends hadn't loved it.

message 37: by Eric (new) - rated it 1 star

Eric Healy I don't believe a writer has done a good job just because a reader can go in depth at explaining why she disliked the book. To me, it means that this reader gave the book a fair shot and didn't simply say, "this book sucked."

Laura Yes, I agree, the plan to escape was so ludicrous that I never thought it would work (surely Old Nick would want to check he is really handling a corpse? I kept thinking that it was not going to work and how horrible Old Nick's revenge was going to be. Still, I was glad they were rescued!

Karen You wrote an awesome review. Wish you would allow "followers" of your reviews.

message 40: by Kassi (new) - rated it 1 star

Kassi Just wanted to pipe in and say thanks for your review of this book. It was written much better than my review was, but said nearly exactly what I wanted to say in mine. I'm just glad I'm not the only one who had this reaction to the book!

message 41: by Lisa (new) - rated it 1 star

Lisa Spot on.

Krystal Completely agree with the review.

message 43: by Amy (new) - rated it 1 star

Amy Rennie I agree with you 100%. I don't even want to try to write my own review now . . .I'll just refer people here if they ask.

message 44: by Nancy (new) - rated it 1 star

Nancy I agree with you completely. I took to skim reading through the first 100 pages or so. Donoghue sometimes buried interesting information in the ramblings of Jack. Also I felt Jack was very inconsistent in his level of intelligence. I know a kid who is 3 and can speak more maturely than Jack (Maybe he's a genius!).

Sheila I agree 100%....honestly I am suprised at how many people love this book. All 5 of us in our book club tore it apart, and a few couldnt even finish it.

Sheila I agree 100%....honestly I am suprised at how many people love this book. All 5 of us in our book club tore it apart, and a few couldnt even finish it.

Sabrina Gabrielle,did you try reading the other half of the book before you wrote a almost a 20 paragraph review? You should read it again and get your facts straight. The questions you asked, were explored. You would know if you actually READ the book.

Sabrina Thanks, Dan but I could care less about what you are saying.

message 49: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim The book was shorter than that review...sometimes I think people overthink entertainment.

message 50: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim You have a firm grasp of the obvious Danny Boy!

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