The Room and the Chair
by Lorraine Adams
Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
One such person who, for no particular reason, love the history and music of language, is the novelist Lorraine Adams, whose The Room and the Chair (Knopf, $25.95) is packed with the kinds of verbal flourishes that will send the editors of the OED scrambling to update their database. What, for example, would they do with Adams's perfect use of always in a description of a woman in a dull marriage coming home for another loveless night: "She climbed those always stairs"? Her poetic language takes a plot line that has all the requisites of the Washington novel (the Virginia parking lots; the bars up in Northeast where you probably won't, but on the off chance and with a bit of bad luck just might, run into someone from work; the driver in Dubai with a transistor underneath his tongue; the lady fighter pilot on the run from her shadowy past) and methodically strips them down.
As in the best of Le Carre, this is a world in which nothing is what it seems; but unlike in Le Carre, the drama of the book is as much about hotel rooms exploding in unattractive regions of Iran and mean tween hookers pinching their mothers' tricks as it is about Adams's brilliant and innovative use of language. The very title of the book (particularly when combined with its author's plain-Jane, Midwestern-sounding name) suggests homey domesticity, a novel perhaps set somewhere lovely on Cape Cod or on a Wisconsin farm; but as the book moves forward, the meaning of even these very concrete words, room and chair, become charged with unexpected nuance. Finally, in the last few lines of the book, Adams upends the expectations she has so carefully nurtured throughout, providing a creepy and ambiguous denouement that concerns the fate of our heroine, to be sure, but also turns on the even more complicated question of a word's meaning.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of Why This World.