The library fairie must’ve put this on my hold shelf – I don’t remember requesting it.
No expectations were had going in to Prague, except maybe that I’d be in Prague. The author pulled a gotcha. As did whoever added all the high praise to the back cover. Prague by Arthur Phillips is about five North American ex-pats in Budapest in the early 1990s just after the fall of communism, probably the most boring subjects you could possibly zoom in on considering the setting, and yet here we are. Not in Prague.
Wine is cheap and the Russians are leaving Hungary. Five ex-pats gather to drink, observe and judge the sluggish chaos of a sleeping giant starting to breathe again. The beginning is sort of promising, and newcomer John provides a logical point of entry. John’s followed his oldest brother/English teacher Scott to Budapest in hope of repairing their relationship and starting a new life for himself. Upon arriving he falls into a cushy jobby job as a snarky columnist for an ex-pat newspaper.
The beginning is sort of promising. I thought John’s position would serve as an interesting lens and I was curious what day-to-day life looked like in this place and time. But the setting is just backdrop for over-privileged whining.
Charles, a venture capitalist/child of Hungarians who immigrated to the U.S., is the only one of the bunch who speaks fluent Hungarian, the rest are barely functional and that’s fine by them. The language barrier is ridiculous and it snowballs over any cultural nuance. After a few chapters it felt like these characters existed in a cramped dirty bubble.
I love books that give you a strong sense of time and place. This is the opposite.
If only a few people could speak your language, then the vast majority of toxins were denied access to your system.
The ex-pats sense life would be better in flashy, thriving Prague, but there’s something in Budapest’s moodiness that keeps them put. They choose to see it with a romantic sepia tone, or at least John does. From first sight he becomes inexplicably obsessed with Emily Oliver, an embassy clerk from Nebraska who he clearly has no chance with.
When you stay where you don’t really want to be, it eats away at you. Instead of a plot, there’s a steady wearing away of both the reader and characters; we moped and drank and began to sense that this story isn’t special.
One character, Mark, is supposedly writing a book on nostalgia. Too many passages with him and it reads like the pages are swallowing themselves. I put this book down so many times, but then fell into the trap of finishing it because it had so many good reviews. It won awards. It won awards? I could’ve enjoyed a tiny story about floating, dull twenty-somethings dating and eating because that’s what people do, even when Russian tanks are pulling away, but this is just a bunch of underdeveloped, overwritten scenes with a pretty cover.
The writing is flabby and the characters – I’ve thought deeply about this – the characters suck. I deserve a treat for finishing this one, Library Fairie. Chocolate chip cookies or pumpkin pie or a warm brownie with wine will do.