Unflashy as it may seem, her writing sparkles when she alternates between detailing her characters’ motivations and describing their new home in all of its volatile, foreign, scaldingly hot charm. She demonstrates a masterly touch in the way she drops dashes of bleak Hungarian history into marital squabbles, family meals, and morning jogs. The familiar, even obvious rhythms of Strangers in Budapest mostly work to its benefit. Keener’s prose occasionally meanders, as reminders of Annie’s state-of-mind turn redundant and the Budapest sun’s overpowering heat is relentlessly emphasized, but it always clicks back into place, fusing emotion to setting and past to present with cutting brevity ... Strangers in Budapest doesn’t exoticize or patronize its location; rather, in a rare achievement for an American novel of this international emphasis, it revels in the complexity of its appeal. The more we learn about the city — the more we travel its roads, wander its stuffy apartment buildings, admire its parks and rivers — the more mournfully satisfying the book becomes. We come to understand why these characters are drawn to Budapest. We see why they’re drawn to the dead.
Keener expertly weaves together a story that not only showcases an expat life, but also shares the tragedies, memories and grudges of strangers in a beautiful city who are more connected than they have come to believe.
Keener’s attempt to bring together her unsettling year-long experience living in Budapest with a fictional mystery surrounding the death of a WWII veteran’s daughter is a promising—if not entirely successful—framework for this rather slow-moving novel ... Keener’s writing is unquestionably skillful. Her ability to render multidimensional characters through sophisticated description and dialogue is excellent. But the buildup to the novel’s climax and revelation of the so-called mystery of Deborah’s death is paced too slowly. Ultimately, it is overly ponderous, perhaps as a result of one too many themes intersecting clumsily in the novel, stalling its momentum and diluting its suspense.
These elements — which form the heart of Strangers in Budapest, Jessica Keener’s ambitious second novel — certainly sound like the ingredients of a gripping, adventurous page-turner. In this case, however, they result in a plot that, despite some high points, struggles to pick up steam, and characters who don’t quite make a lasting impression. What Keener does accomplish is painting a vivid picture of post-Communist Budapest and the disorientation and heightened sensitivities that often come from being thrust into an unfamiliar culture without direction, a grasp of the language, or a support system … It is in the passages about the city itself that Keener’s talent shines, and it is this writing that keeps the reader engaged as the plot meanders toward a respectable climax.
Keener’s second psychological novel, set in modern Hungary, dramatizes both national and personal outcomes of harrowing past events. Budapest becomes a powerful symbol of past horrors, lush culture, and an uncertain future. Reminiscent of Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street ... and similar in tone and theme to Kim Brooks’ historical novel, The Houseguest.
The only character besides Annie with a revealed inner life, Edward is embittered by his experience as a Jewish WWII soldier. He disapproved of Deborah’s hippie lifestyle and her attraction to men he considered losers, like Van. Over Will’s objections, and the readers’ disbelief, bleeding-heart Annie agrees to help Edward find Van. A bad idea. As for Budapest itself—polluted, in physical disrepair, plagued by an ugly history, and populated by rude, corrupt, and bigoted locals—the author strongly implies that the misery and mayhem Annie experiences are the city’s fault. Expect readers of this unpleasant hate poem to Budapest to cancel any plans they've made to travel there.