A Stranger Like You

Synopsis

“An intense, provocative thriller…” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Hedda Chase is a top-flight executive producer at Gladiator Films, fast-tracked in the business since she graduated from Yale. An aggressive businesswoman, she recently pulled the plug on a film project initiated by one of her predecessors. The screenwriter on the project was Hugh Waters, a wannabe with a dead-end marriage and a day job at an insurance company. This script was his ticket out-until Hedda tampered with his plans, claiming his violence was over the top, his premise not credible, and his ending implausible. Hugh decides to prove otherwise by staging his script’s ending and casting Hedda Chase as the victim. He flies to Los Angeles and finds Hedda, kidnaps her, and locks her in the trunk of her vintage BMW in the parking lot at LAX. He leaves the keys in the ignition, the parking ticket on the dash, and lets “destiny” take its course.

This is the set-up for a troubling, smart, deadly look at women and images of women, at media as a high-stakes game and the selling of a war as theatre. (One key character is an Iraq veteran, and one of Hedda’s projects is a film about women in Iraq). Brundage’s Los Angeles is a casual battleground that trades carelessly in lives and dreams. As always, her characters are complicated, surprising, and intense in this high velocity, provocative novel.

REVIEWS

“In this intense, provocative thriller about power, war, and the portrayal of women in film…. Brundage brilliantly shifts back and forth between Hugh, Hedda, and Denny, an injured Iraq war veteran, who plays a key role in Hedda’s fate. The action culminates in illuminating revelations about the intersection of theater with reality.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Hollywood looks a lot different from inside the trunk of a car, which is where Hedda Chase, “one of the most powerful women in town,” finds herself in Elizabeth Brundage’s painfully intimate novel of psychological suspense…about the limitations imposed on women in male-dominated societies. – Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review

“Brundage excels at pushing her characters to their limits and then reflecting on the consequences of their behavior.” —Booklist

“Brundage is an astonishing writer — some passages are as claustrophobic as Chase’s imprisonment. This is the best novel I’ve read about the underbelly of Hollywood since “The Day of the Locust.” Grade: A” —Les Roberts, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“‘People are ugly and cruel. They are relentless. They will stop at nothing to get what they want.’” Like The Player, A Stranger Like You tests this hard-boiled lemma against the beautiful, nasty backdrop of Hollywood. Elizabeth Brundage delivers a pithy, ironic L.A. noir full of broken dreams and snappy repartee.” —Stewart O’Nan, author of Songs for the Missing

“Elizabeth Brundage is the real thing – an ambitious, serious novelist. Not for her, small bites. She uses Dickensian coincidence and the Russians’ sense of tragic destiny, all while observing modern life with a biting acuity and a throwaway hipness – and she dares you to care for characters whose self-contempt, earnest longings, and sad ingratiation are uncomfortably unalloyed. Brundage imbues Hollywood with a mystical super-reality, and scrubs it of anything stock. I couldn’t stop turning the pages of this action-packed, poetic, large-souled novel. And I closed it with a pounding heart.” —Sheila Weller, bestselling author of Girls Like Us

A Stranger Like You is a disturbingly believable thriller that catches you in a spider web of blind ambition, karma, and cinema dreams. Elizabeth Brundage perfectly captures the laid-back perniciousness of L.A. and the dark heart of the movie biz. It’s a 21st-century ‘noir’ that takes you on a journey that leaves you fearful for yourself. Brundage is a singular talent.” —Dirk Wittenborn, author of Pharmakon, or The Story of a Happy Family

“I’m pulling out all the best adjectives here: quirky, dark, full of unexpected surprises, and oh yes, a wonderful, thorny portrait of Hollywood. ” — Caroline Leavitt

“The characters are so well developed that their tragic struggles and emotional success resonates with you long after you close the book.” — Bookin’ with Bingo

“Elizabeth Brundage is a wonderful storyteller who digs into those secret little corners of lives and personalities and lays bare the thoughts and emotions that reside therein. You know the ones of which I’m speaking; I think we all lay awake at night at some point in our lives and think, Am I the only one who feels like this? Brundage not only exposes these but also sets them free. The result is a wild ride of first impression…

Brundage is not exactly known for her noir fiction, yet A Stranger Like You so perfectly captures the modern vacuum of the soul of southern California that it is worth rereading this work just to take notes on how she does it. I was reminded by turns of John Barth, Raymond Chandler and Walker Percy, though the book is like nothing any of those gentlemen wrote. No, this one is all Brundage, all the time. And that makes the wait between her books worth it.” — Joe Hartlaub, Bookreporter

“Required reading.” — New York Post

A Stranger Like You operates at the highest tension point… But truer words were never spoken than when Hedda, at a critical point, wonders, ‘they say if you think about something enough you are actually channelling the universe to make it happen. What was once ‘too violent,’ it turns out, is nowhere near violent enough, as fantasy and reality blur even more.” —L.A. Times

“… the characterization was rich and the ideas that were explored were troubling and timely… there are certainly timely questions, sharp observations, and great writing. I will, without a doubt, continue to read every book Elizabeth Brundage writes.” — My Friend Amy

“Brundage’s novel is a brilliant surprise, the plot a perfect combination of pulp thriller and literary suspense. In Hollywood, where the manufacture of ideas is time-consuming and costly, the author’s damaged protagonists battle it out on the rain-soaked streets of Los Angeles, the hot, white sands of the Middle-East, and the barren deserts of Nevada, where the final devastating denouement comes at a violent price.” — Curled Up

“Reminiscent of the movie Crash, Brundage weaves narratives by Waters, Chase, a teenage runaway and a troubled young soldier just home from Iraq and working as a parking lot attendant at LAX. While you hold your breath waiting to find out Hedda’s fate, Hugh insinuates himself into her life and social circle…The novel explodes when the characters intersect in this terrific and quirky thriller. I’ll definitely be reading Brundage’s previous books.” — Monarch Book Reviews

“A Stranger Like You could not be better written; it is a showcase of clever plotting, memorable characters and dialogue that reads as if it were overheard.” — Jesse Kornbluth, Headbutler

“It’s a study in human nature, and you’ll have to work your way through it. But I guarantee, you’ll enjoy the ride. The characters — all who move masterfully through their arcs of development — will haunt you long after you finish A Stranger Like You.” — Murder By 4

“Yeah, I’m crushing because I’m deep in love with her novel set in Hollywood, but this is no chick lit, but a thriller with a wickedly delicious premise every writer can relate to. A Stranger Like You is what happens when a writer almost grabs the brass ring and it’s taken away from him.” — The Boomer Muse

The story is cleverly structured and the prose is oftentimes breathtaking and quite vivid (hardly a trademark of most thrillers). It’s dark, to be sure, but there are many illuminating passages to light the reader’s way, like this one: “Ten minutes to five and it’s still dark, as if the sky’s been filled in with pencil. A strange time, he thinks, neither day nor night, but somewhere in between. Like the way he feels in his life an awful lot of the time. Like he’s waiting, been waiting a long time.” — Bonnie Crisalli, Babes in Bookland

“While my husband has never been great with words, I am always looking for explanations of what it felt like to be blown up. Brundage’s description of Rios’ injury paints a vivid picture of that moment: “They tell you it’s going to hurt, but this was a medieval pain, this was the pain of the rack, stretching your flesh into something else. It was like nothing he‘d ever experienced. You couldn’t compare it to anything. Maybe like a train running into you. Something to that effect.” Rios ends up being the unlikely hero in the story. There were many times while reading Rios’ words, tears pricked my eyes. I could feel his pain, the feeling of being lost, not fitting in.” — Wife of a Wounded Soldier

EXCERPT

It begins in late September, when you first see the car. It is raining and you are happy for the rain because you have grown irritable with so much sun and the rain soothes you somehow and reinforces the fact that you were not born in this sun-bleached emotional wasteland, but back east where people are moodier and unapologetically disenchanted. The sky is grim, the air cool, and you are driving home from the studio as on most afternoons around this time, only today is different because of the rain, the long line of traffic down Los Feliz Boulevard. The car is parked on a grassy corner, adjacent to one of those prehistoric mansions, an enormous, mushroom-colored Spanish Colonial entrapped in vines. It is a blue BMW, an older model, a For Sale sign taped on the windshield. You think of stopping, but in truth you are not the sort of person who buys things from strangers—you have come to rely on the expertise of people you trust for getting you what you need, when you need it, and you are not really comfortable pursuing things on your own. For the several weeks that follow, you notice the car as you pass by, as the grass grows up around it, dappled with fluffy dandelions, and you begin to dream about owning it, driving home in it, showing it to your colleagues at the studio, your small collection of important friends.

Then, days later, again on your way home from work, you happen to notice a van parked in the driveway. It is raining again, the clouds hauntingly black, a yellow fluorescence to the light as if the sky, the air, is sick. The driveway runs up off of Delacroix Avenue, a side street off the boulevard. The van is black with gold lettering: COUNTY CORONER. Instinctively, you take your foot off the accelerator and turn onto Delacroix, pulling up alongside the curb with the car idling. They are bringing a body out. It is covered with a black water-repellent sheet. It is an eerie thing to witness and you watch with apologetic fascination as they load it into the van. You have felt the same uncertain empathy whenever you pass an accident on the freeway—that morbid anticipation—you can’t help thinking of the famous scene in Weekend, the Godard film, a ten-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam caused by an accident—or when you are behind an ambulance and can see inside, the EMT’s diligent face, his solemn concentration as he works on the patient. It is an expression reserved for the saving of a life, and it is rare, and fine. As a filmmaker, you have come to know about expressions and there are certain expressions that are not for everyone and that are difficult to duplicate for the camera. You have come to realize that both saviors and executioners wear the same expression and there is, of course, a heady irony in that.

The rain begins to fall harder and you see a woman come outside with an umbrella. She is Mexican, in a housekeeping dress, holding the umbrella over the coroner’s head. At one point he takes her hand and guides the umbrella over her head, and she smiles gratefully. It is a brief and touching exchange and you make a mental note to work it into a movie. Thinking about the car, the strange dark house, the alarming appearance of the body, you drive home to your rented bungalow. Death is something you fear and you can never gauge its proximity. Sometimes you sense it encroaching upon you like some thief in the night, looking into your windows. Sometimes you lay in bed, brittle, waiting for evil to find you. Images sprawl through your mind, arbitrary scraps of terror that have become all too ordinary. To some degree, you have been nurtured on fear.

Stopped at a traffic light you review the facts of your life: You have achieved so much, and yet your heart is empty. It is the truth; it is something you know. You have come to a point in your life—success has garnered certain privileges—you are grossly overpaid, and yet you are overworked; you are rarely alone, and yet you are intensely lonesome; you have accomplished what you set out to, and yet you feel your ideals have been compromised. When all is said and done, you feel a weary sense of ambivalence.

You are forty, which in Hollywood is not a good thing. Not that you are actually old, because of course you are not, but you have begun to feel slightly invisible at meetings with certain people, the younger directors for example, most of them men, who grow impatient with your lengthy discussions of character and plot—your questions about context and rationale—and your desire to tell stories that resonate in the hearts and minds of the American public—yes, it is true, your ambitions are lofty—and some of them actually rush you through lunch. In a town like this, where passive aggression is something of an art form, you have invented your own special version of subliminal espionage. In order to survive as a female you are forced to behave like someone with a personality disorder, limiting your range of expression to a deadpan grimace. The smile, that old-fashioned symbol of genuine assurance, has become obsolete, replaced by its nasty cousin the smirk which, when coupled with the cruel but effective once-over, conveys to its recipient that he or she is a complete waste of time. The only time people sustain a genuine smile is when they are certain you can make them money. On your way up you had acquired your own battle scars. And even now—even with all your success—you are besieged with doubt. You have not entirely outgrown the need for approval, the lavishing praise of an expert. Doubt is your compass. It prevents you from feeling happy. Your unhappiness is a strategic part of the mechanism that drives you, the feverish self-loathing that shoves you forward, toward that shimmering light of your destiny.

DISCUSSION GUIDE

Download A Stranger Like You Reader’s Guide

1. One of Brundage’s many narrative techniques involves the shifting of verb tenses. Some chapters are related in the present tense, whereas others are told in the past tense. How does Brundage subtly control her story’s effect on the reader by using this device?

2. The chapters of A Stranger Like You that are narrated from the viewpoint of Hedda Chase differ from all the others in that they are told from the grammatical standpoint of the second person; Hedda becomes “you.” What do you think Brundage intends to achieve through this grammatical sleight of hand? Does she succeed?

3. A Stranger Like You is not told in chronological fashion. What do you think Brundage gains or loses in breaking free from chronological order? Would you have chosen to narrate the story’s episodes in a different order? How might your treatment differ and why?

4. Brundage prefaces the main text of her novel with a page of capitalized, four-word plot premises similar to those her characters bandy back and forth in chapter nine. What do you think is the purpose of this page, and how does it relate to the remainder of the novel?

5. A relatively common technique in recent thriller novels is to conclude them with very short, rapid-fire chapters. In A Stranger Like You, the last third of the chapters account for just less than one seventh of the length of the novel. How does this pacing affect the reading of the end of the novel? What do you think of this technique and Brundage’s use of it?

6. We are given to understand that Hugh Waters, the villain of the novel, has homosexual leanings. Is there a purpose to this aspect of his character, or did you find it gratuitous? How does Brundage’s treatment of homosexual feelings compare with those in other thrillers you might have read, and what do you think of these treatments?

7. A Stranger Like You narrates the abduction of Hedda Chase twice: first from the perspective of her kidnapper (chapter one) and later from the viewpoint of the victim (chapter thirteen). What does the reader gain from the retelling that was not present the first time? How has the reader’s perspective on the crime been altered by the intervening chapters?

8. Characters in A Stranger Like You like Hedda Chase and Harold Unger (H. Unger) have names that suggest pursuit and unsatisfied desire. What are the characters in the novel looking for, and why does it prove so elusive?

9. How does Hedda’s trip to Abu Dhabi change her? What does she learn from her contact with a different culture?

10. We are given to understand that Hugh Waters’s screenplay for The Adjuster is vulgar, exploitative, and misogynistic. How does Elizabeth Brundage manage her novel, which is largely about that screenplay, in such a way as to keep it from being subject to the same criticisms?

11. Ironically, the screenplay that actually gets someone killed in A Stranger Like You is not Hugh’s, but Tom Foster’s more socially conscious script about the stoning of an Iraqi woman, which leads to the death of Fatima Kassim. Was Foster irresponsible in writing this film? Is Hedda right when she wonders what right Americans have to judge the practices of other cultures?

12. Imagine that you are a director filming the screen version of A Stranger Like You. Describe in detail how you would shoot a particular scene from the book.

13. Does Hugh Waters change over the course of the novel? If so, how does he change, and how does Brundage enable us to recognize these changes?

14. What, in your view, are the necessary qualities of a great thriller novel? Applying these criteria, how favorably do you rate A Stranger Like You?

BEHIND THE BOOK

This book began as a short story. When I finished the story I realized that its protagonist, Hugh Waters, a frustrated writer working in an insurance company, had a lot more to say.  The novel focuses on Hugh and two other characters, a woman named Hedda Chase, a Hollywood film producer, and Denny Rios, an Iraq war veteran. Their lives come together unexpectedly, with dangerous consequences.

Like his name suggests, Hugh Waters is oddly transparent and yet nuanced with shadow. He is the kind of guy you may have worked with over the years. Attractive, yet enigmatic; squeamish around his superiors; distant, yet polite.  At the office party, he lingers on the periphery.  As passive as he appears, you can’t help thinking that, at some point, under the right circumstances, he will snap. Indifferent to his wife, Hugh’s only apparent pleasure is in watching movies in the basement of his suburban home. For Hugh, spending a few hours caught up in someone else’s troubles is a spectacular reprieve from the monotony of his own existence.  Remarkably, he succeeds in selling a screenplay to Hollywood, but at the last minute the project is trashed by a new producer who rejects his blatant use of violence. For Hugh, it’s the last straw in a life already routine with disappointment, and he decides to take matters into his own hands. Reenacting scenes from his script, he becomes somebody else; empowered, devoid of pain and regret, removed from consequence.

With the proliferation of special effects and cyber imagery, we have become accustomed to watching the impossible.  We are a culture of watchers.  TV – our neighbors –  the strangers in the street.   Danger lurks.  The world – our planet – seems unreliable; unsafe.   This is the set up for an atmosphere of extremes.

The story is told from three perspectives – Hugh’s, Hedda’s, and a third character, Denny Rios. Each character is motivated by loss. For Hugh, his dream of becoming a Hollywood player has been interrupted; Hedda has compromised her ideals for the sake of money and power; and Denny has lost a part of himself – his soul – in the deserts of Iraq. They are each broken in some deeply personal way. Their dreams of a certain kind of life have been betrayed.  I wanted to explore what would happen when these disparate characters are brought together in an extreme situation – how they would handle it, what they would teach one another, and who would survive.