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January 9, 2019

Escape Room Reads

I’ve been thinking lately about how grateful I am to everyone who has never invited me to an escape room party, and I was thinking this even before the story about the five Polish teenagers who died while trapped in an escape room facility that caught fire. There are few things I would like to do less than visit an escape room, and if I was ever forced into such an endeavour, I’d simply bring a book and read in a corner until it was time for me to go.

I’ve only ever encountered an actual escape room in fiction once before, in the story “Prize” in Jessica Westhead’s collection Things Not to Do, in which a couple of would-be entrepreneurs decide to get into the industry. “Allen works in data administration and I’m currently a cashier but I have my diploma in business communications so we’re already in an advantageous position, combined-projected-earnings wise.” Things do not go well, however, and the story is creepy sinister in a way that I now imagine all escape rooms actually are, which only underlines my aversion. No, I would definitely prefer to read a book…and the two escape-room-esque novels that I’ve read in the past week have only made this feeling stronger.

The first was Nine Perfect Strangers, by Lianne Moriarty, who has not disappointed me ever since I first read Big Little Lies, and then Truly Madly Guilty and What Alice Forgot. Moriarty is a master of compelling plots, suspense, and richly textured characters…but I will admit that this novel let me down just a little bit. About nine people who show up at a remote wellness spa, run by a woman who just might deranged, and at one point they really do all get locked in a room and it seemed very contrived and unnecessary, which is nothing I’ve ever said about a Lianne Moriarty novel before. The problem was structural—each of her characters has an incredible backstory, and there is humour and pathos, and each individual story manages to be really evocative—the has-been romance novelist who’s just been swindled in an online romance scam, the family trying to move on after the suicide of their eldest son, a young couple that’s drifted apart after their lottery win, washed up athlete whose life seems meaningless, woman whose husband has ditched her for a newest model, and the startlingly handsome man whose boyfriend wants them to have a baby, but he’s having none of it. Each of these characters should have been given a novel of their own, but to toss them all into one book like a grab-bag just seems wasteful. I enjoyed most of the book well enough, but close to the end I was really frustrated, as though this was plot for the sake of plot (like an escape room, no less) instead of a story. But by the end Moriarty had managed to tie it all up in such a way that my feelings toward the book were almost warm again, but still, this was not my favourite. Which is not to say that I’m going to give up my vow to read everything Lianne Moriarty ever publishes.

I had the opposite reaction to The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton, which I gave to my husband for Christmas and read when he was finished it. (I know what I’m doing when it comes to giving gifts.) He’d really enjoyed it and I was looking forward to appreciating for myself, and was disappointed to find the beginning a bit frustrating. It wasn’t bad, and the pace was fast, but I just wasn’t sure why it was supposed to be interesting. The way I suppose I’d be if I ever actually did visit an escape room, having to listen to all the rules and wondering why I needed to bother. Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? But it was, very quickly, Turton’s bestselling first novel that has been described as Agatha Christie meets Black Mirror. The narrator wakes up in a body belonging to a guest attending a party at a crumbling stately home where that night there is going to be a murder, and it’s up to the narrator to figure out what’s happening, and before he does he will wake up in the body of a variety of different party guests, and live the same day over again. I really liked this book, and enjoyed the twists and surprises and—except for one bit in which the twists comes because the narrator has withheld vital info from the reader—it’s all deftly plotted and very taut, and the revelation at the end about the purpose of this game which our narrator has got himself locked into turns out to be really interesting and expansive. Which is the point, I think, and the problem with escape rooms—there’s got to be a reason why you’re there in the first place.

4 thoughts on “Escape Room Reads”

  1. melanie says:

    And now there is a movie called Escape Room or The Escape Room which plays on the fears of all of us who feel creeped out by the thought of being in a locked room with other people. (I don’t even want to watch the trailer although Instagram has been pushing it pretty hard.) Did you ever see The Cube? It’s a cult classic Canadian film that is creepy and has never left my mind (which could also be because of the association our family made between the autistic character and my husband and have been referencing it ever since). All this is to say I also have no desire to go to one of those escape room places. Being locked in a room with books would be fine.

      1. melanie says:

        I am 99% certain I read that book when I was younger. I definitely recognize it and it doesn’t look like something I would pass up. Who wouldn’t want to be locked in a library? (Although tbh I worked in a library in Montreal and it wasn’t the best experience. The woman who ran it was psychotic)

  2. Jilanna says:

    YES to this: “…thinking about how grateful I am to everyone who has never invited me to an escape room party”

    Seven Deaths keeps turning up without any context and always when I’m too distracted to ask about it. I’m glad to find out what it’s about.

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