by John Flynn-York
In Jessica Keener’s new novel, Strangers in Budapest, the lives of two ex-pat Americans become intertwined in the titular city in the 1990s. Annie is unhappy and shiftless, at loose ends after a move to Budapest with her husband and their young son. Meanwhile, Edward, an elderly man, is in Budapest for one reason only: to find the man he thinks murdered his daughter. When they cross paths, they find common ground in this quest. Edward is a cause Annie can invest her energy into—something she’s been lacking since moving to Budapest. But when she is drawn deeper into Edward’s scheming, she begins to question whether she’s merely helping an old man or abetting his delusions.
It’s a promising setup for a psychological thriller. Is Edward pursuing justice or making a dangerous mistake? Should Annie continue helping him even after she begins to suspect he’s not what he seems to be? Annie bounces back and forth for much of the novel, her instinct to stay away clashing with her desire to help. “Here she was doing what she herself despised: insinuating herself into his life,” Keener writes. “Didn’t she hate when people did that to her? She was done with this silliness.” And yet, soon enough, Annie is back trying to help Edward, whether he wants it or not.
It’s an interesting dynamic at first, but it becomes repetitive as the novel moves along to its inevitable conclusion. There’s an uneasy fit between Annie’s directionless life and Edward’s laser focus. Annie jogs around Budapest, thinking about her brother and sister, whose lives were changed forever by a childhood accident, and the caseworker who helped her and her husband adopt their son, whose methods she found too intrusive. Edward stews in his apartment, his thoughts occupied by his daughter Deborah’s untimely death. Their scenes together are uncomfortable, with Annie pressing Edward for information and Edward being rude and uncharitable in return. In a typical exchange, after Annie says she’s sorry to hear about what happened to Edward’s daughter, he explodes: “I told you I’ve had enough sorries. Sorry doesn’t bring her back.” No, it doesn’t—and neither will his anger. But Edward is helpless in the face of his own rage, and Annie lacks the character to stand up to him.
Setting the novel in Hungary allows Keener to draw parallels between Annie’s meddling and the general tendency of Americans to involve themselves in the affairs of others. Sometimes, it’s warranted; more often, it’s simply an imposition. “This whole endeavor was proving far more difficult than Will or she had anticipated,” Keener writes of Annie. “She had arrived with her own foolish belief that they could come here, leaping across an ocean, and just make things happen without experiencing delays or duress. So American of them.” The novel is, ultimately, an indictment of that tendency—American or otherwise—to meddle in other people’s lives.