Getting in is easy. Getting out is murder.
Four young Wall Street rising stars discover the price of ambition when an escape room challenge turns into a lethal game of revenge.
In the lucrative world of finance, Vincent, Jules, Sylvie, and Sam are at the top of the game. They have mastered the art of negotiating and finalizing deals, and celebrate their success in style.
But living a life steeped in extreme luxury comes at a cost.
Ordered to report to a high rise building that is still under construction, they believe that they have been summoned to participate in a team-building exercise. The competitive quartet step into the elevator en route to the seventieth floor.
When the lights go off and the elevator doors won’t open, they quickly realize that they have not been directed to appear for an ordinary competition. They are trapped in a game of survival.
In the dark elevator, the colleagues must put aside their bitter rivalries and work together to solve cryptic clues that they are convinced will set them free. But during the course of the game, their individual dark secrets come to light. The terrible acts they’ve committed in their ruthless pursuits for success revealed, tempers fray, the clues turn outright deadly, they must solve one final chilling puzzle. Which one of them will kill in order to survive?
“Welcome to the escape room. Your goal is simple. Get out alive.”
The Escape Room is the debut thriller from author Megan Goldin, an Australian journalist who has reported from the Middle East and Asia for news outlets such as the Associated Press, Reuters, and Yahoo. She also worked as a news editor.
Escape rooms have become extremely popular over the past few years. Contestants are locked in a room together, provided clues, and must solve riddles or puzzles in order to escape. Goldin says that inspiration for The Escape Room was cemented as a result of reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. That book made her “look at the corporate world through the prism of evolutionary biology as a modern-day human habitat. Instead of hunting and gathering and living in caves, it’s penthouses, Hermès, and plush Wall Street offices. And instead of bringing back bison from the hunt, it’s junk bonds and bonuses.” Thus, Goldin decided to examine the world of finance, megawealth, office politics and workplace culture, and pervasive and ongoing sexism through the lens of an escape room in which the stakes couldn’t be higher. She wanted to “explore what would happen if you strip down all the pretense of the camaraderie and reveal all the office politics and machinations.”
At the heart of the story is Sara Hall. In a compelling first-person narrative, Sara relates her experiences at Stanhope and Sons. She is hired shortly after completing her MBA summa cum laude, but not from an ivy league school. And that leaves her scrambling despite her grades, excellent references, and successful completion of an internship. But she survives the rigorous interview process and lands the job. During the new employee orientation, the firm’s message, “pummeled into us was that our world revolved around money: making it, accumulating it, spending it — in that order. It was Stanhope’s version of the Holy Trinity.” Sara finds herself making a lot of money, but without a life. The firm provides plenty of perks, but demands complete loyalty and “blind, cultlike reverence.”
Sara’s narrative alternatives with a third-person moment-by-moment description of what transpires in the elevator. Vincent is the manipulative team leader who initially attempts to reassure his three subordinate employees that the exercise will last only one hour, at the end of which they will all be released whether they have solved the riddles presented to them or not. An hour elapses during which hot air blasts into the elevator in which a screen lights up with messages and clues. The door cannot be opened, there is no way to escape the influx of suffocatingly hot air, and the participants’ cell phone batteries are being drained as they use the flashlight apps to illuminate their surroundings. One hour turns into many hours, as the clues become more troubling and their fear more pronounced.
Sam Bradley has served as Sara’s mentor over lengthy, expensive lunches. He wanted to be a human rights lawyer, but has over time transformed into a cynic, sacrificing his ideals and values in the name of making money. He knows that he has become a slave to his demanding wife, Kim, as well as his own ego. And he is going to miss the flight to Antigua that Kim has made “a test of his commitment to their marriage.” Sylvie is enmeshed in an affair with a married man who has made it clear that if she fails to meet him in Paris their relationship will be over. She is beautiful, stylish, and has learned to navigate a male-dominated profession by perpetually displaying an expression “a few degrees short of a resting bitch face.” She is not a friend to other women. Jules is an alcoholic whose job performance has declined as a result of his drinking. All four of them are aware that the firm is considering layoffs due to recent failures to cement critical deals. They are all aware that they have “red targets on their backs” and, accordingly, not appearing when summoned for the escape room exercise was not an option.
As the hours drag on, revelations of secret machinations, betrayals, and resentments ratchet up the tension and potential for dire consequences in the elevator. The mystery at the heart of the characters’ dilemma? Who has ordered them there and why? Are they going to be released? Or is the mastermind behind the deadly game determined to eliminate the players?
I realized why the firm gave us such generous perks and pay. It was to skew our moral compass so that we wouldn’t hesitate, wouldn’t flinch, when we had to be ruthless. ~~ Sara in The Escape Room
Sara is an empathetic character — idealistic and committed to her career. Close to her parents, her desire to succeed is motivated not only by her own ego. Her father has been ill for many years and her earnings make it possible for her to ensure that his medical costs are covered, as well as care for her mother. At the outset, Sara is naive and unprepared for the cutthroat environment into which she is thrust. And she is understandably excited about her new career and her future. Sara describes the friendship she develops with Lucy, a brilliant member of the team who is mentored and protected by Vincent. He tells Sara that she is “on the spectrum” and “awkward in social situations.” But the two women develop a camaraderie as Sara comes to realize that Lucy is “the most sincere person in the entire team” which “said more about the team than about her.” Goldin credibly and heartbreakingly demonstrates the evolution of their friendship and its profound impact upon several characters, but primarily Sara. And Sara’s gradual disillusionment, disappointment, and regret. She acknowledges that “you block out the things you don’t want to see. All I saw that first year at Stanhope was that I’d made it to the big time.” Her pain is understandable, palpable, and in Goldin’s deftly-crafted story, compelling. Every reader will empathize with Sara at the moment she experiences “the first twinge that maybe I didn’t belong” at Stanhope.
The Escape Room is engrossing and clever. Aside from Sara and Lucy, Goldin’s characters are despicable and morally bankrupt. She explains how some of them devolved to their current loathsome state, and challenges her readers to consider whether they can or should be redeemed — if they survive. The story is replete with shocking revelations about the characters’ behave that explain and inform their circumstances. It is a captivating mystery, but it is also a savvy exploration of the characters’ relationships, alliances, and motivations that have delivered them to the challenge they must face together. The Escape Room is an unvarnished, unapologetic indictment of the misogyny and sexism that still permeate American workplaces, and a morality tale about greed, competitiveness, and an obsession with success . . . at any cost.
The pace of The Escape Room is unrelenting. The jaw-dropping conclusion may likely disappoint readers Goldin skillfully convinces to emotionally invest in her characters and their well-being, but it is undeniably inventive and, on some levels, deeply satisfying. There are many themes worthy of discussion which makes The Escape Room an excellent choice for book clubs. It has already been deemed one of the best books of 2019 for good reason, and bodes well for readers anxious to read more from Goldin, a talented and provocative new voice in fiction.
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