The Escape Room and The Need are two buzzy new novels, both marketed as thrillers, which when read together expose the limitations of such genre labels. They have profound differences in plot and style, but if you squint, a common theme can be spotted: female exhaustion. One is a quite effective book; the other would make a nifty movie.
The first book, The Escape Room by Megan Goldin, is a story of financial revenge and has a wonderfully claustrophobic premise—an escape game in a locked elevator. The prologue ends on an intriguing cliff-hanger, as high-rise elevator doors open onto the lobby floor, offering a horrified glimpse inside: “He’d never seen so much blood in all his life.”
The countdown to how the blood got there begins 34 hours earlier, at the start of a corporate team-building exercise gone awry. Four high-powered investment bankers are trapped late at night in that elevator, lights out, with no signal, and only cryptic clues to guide them to safety. Secrets are spilled and hazards uncovered as they battle thirst, fear, and exhaustion in an unforgiving space.
In other words, it’s your average team-building event.
But that promising premise is wasted with obvious prose that reads like a bare-bones screenplay draft. My disdain for the writing style was so acute I feared I had become a literary snob, and had to dip into Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series to be assured that it’s not me, it’s the prose.
Lost in the Cruel Corporate Woods
The book’s acknowledgment is revealing: “For everyone who has ever been made to feel powerless, trampled upon, or scorned, this book is for you.” It’s not giving away things too cavalierly (that’s Goldin’s job) to call it a revenge thriller against the 1 percent.
Some chapters outside the confines of the elevator are narrated by our heroine Sara Hall, a former colleague of the four, described as “dead but not forgotten,” at the investment banking firm Stanhope and Sons in Manhattan, which is even more competitive, well-compensated, and ruthless than most. “If truth be told, I think that most of us would have killed for Stanhope” is not the only piece of rather plainspoken foreshadowing here. Still, straightforward writing is no sin in the thriller field, and there’s a reassuring certitude knowing that the gun we meet on page 68 will be fired… eventually.
Sara, the striving new graduate, can’t break in with the cool kids in her department (Vincent, Jules, Sam, and Sylvie, occupants of the fateful elevator) but she eventually befriends another outlier, Lucy, a math whiz with Asperger’s who can’t let things go, a trait that triggers the events that lead to a fight for survival.
But what could have been an intriguing variant on the locked room mystery fails to take full advantage of its setting and allows the claustrophobic tension to dissipate. Our four prisoners seem to have suspiciously ample room to maneuver in the tight space, and notice a lot by the light of dying phones. I would have dissolved into a puddle of panic if an elevator door opened onto a concrete wall, but these fictional bankers are made of sterner stuff.
Although the characters claim, with uncharacteristic modesty, that the puzzles offered are beyond their abilities, they came off like an afterthought to this reviewer, a two-time escape game loser, who solved them quickly and then impatiently turned pages waiting for these supposed analytical wunderkinds to catch up.
There are some intriguingly fuzzy point-of view-choices, and put-upon Sara retains our sympathy in her obvious way. But The Escape Room suffers from a dry, almost reportorial style (Goldin previously worked for Reuters). The prose is as blunt as a banker on his fourth martini: “We didn’t realize we were being wooed for a long, heady love affair with greed.” There is a lack of authority over the details of investment banking and most crucially, the machinations of its revenge plot.
The female characters work better, although they don’t escape cliché. Goldin makes an unsuccessful attempt to sympathize with the lone trapped female, Sylvie. Goldin doesn’t seem to bother much with the three men, who are various flavors of toxic. We’ve been taught by culture to despise them and Goldin doesn’t try very hard to make us feel otherwise.
The sentences are memorable only for their lefty banality, and as the plot unfolded, a recurring question nagged: “Is it really that easy to accomplish [that particular thing]?”
Goldin captures the exhaustion and frenetic pressure of being a naïve fawn lost in the cruel corporate woods, as well as the vulnerability of modern employment. But beyond the disappointing fulfillment of the “escape room” premise, its left-wing caricature of investment banking misses the mark a bit—it’s a thriller Elizabeth Warren could cozy up with.
Some previously wronged readers may find the tone bracing. But no matter your view of the people who make good living in high-stakes banking, when that gun is finally fired, you should care who gets hit.
If The Escape Room is the ultimate elevator pitch (“an escape room…in an elevator!”), not much can be said about The Need by Helen Phillips without giving too much away. One can say that it opens as a gripping thriller before taking an alternate, enthralling path and validating its generic, yet off-center title.
It’s getting seriously mixed reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, balanced out by lauds from the literary crowd. The Need unfolds like a fever dream, more emotionally complicated and intimate than your average thriller. But have no fear, Phillips isn’t a pretentious Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate slumming in a genre field. The speculative aspects of the novel registered as intriguing rather than annoying, although at times it was a close call.
Molly, the mother of two young children, is a paleobotanist working at a new dig at an abandoned Phillips 66 gas station. She’s found a special seam, unearthing things that look normal but are a little off: An object with a world-famous logo leaning the other way. Toy soldiers with an extra appendage. A Bible with an enormous, perhaps universe-shattering, difference. The worksite becomes a popular draw for unhappy religious fundamentalists.
One sleepless night, she sees her children’s toy chest lift, ever so slightly, and things change irrevocably.
Aspects of science fiction emerge, but the focus narrows to Molly and an antagonist quite familiar with her routines, thoughts, and fears, all while Molly nurses a newborn and mothers four-year-old Viv, who is a marvelous creation, quirky, inconsistent, wholly believable, and insane—as all four-year-olds are. Molly’s husband David is mostly off-screen save a shocking cameo near the end.
Phillips vividly creates a nightmarish, almost hallucinogenic uncertainty wrought by exhaustion and captures the “deceitful normalcy” and fragility of daily life, as Molly struggles to keep two insane little creatures (a.k.a. children) out of harm’s way while tackling the pit and her adversary.
After mocking The Escape Room’s prose, it’s only fair to say that a lyrical style can have its own pitfalls. I would have welcomed more about the intrigues of the pit and fewer lactation metaphors. (So much milk!) Sometimes sentences that aim for mellifluous hit glib instead: “The glimmer spread across the sky, black birds writing cursive on it with their bodies.”
But overall, The Need’s speculative fiction trappings effectively tap into the fears, the needs (naturally), and the crazed hopes of overworked mothers who don’t think they can cope with everything by themselves.