Lauren B. Davis’s fourth novel tells the story of Colleen Kerrigan, a relatively unremarkable middle-aged secretary who is single and childless. Colleen is also a full-blown alcoholic.
The novel takes place over a single day. As the story begins, Colleen is fired from her job, her bosses having reached the breaking point over her inability to perform at work. Flashbacks trace Colleen’s downward trajectory, beginning in childhood with an alcoholic father and (untreated) bipolar mother. Other family members have also suffered from addiction. However, The Empty Room hypothesizes that addiction is not simply the result of genetics. Circumstances and choices play an equal part in the disease’s
Colleen’s former boyfriend, Jake, is another drug she can’t quit. Like alcohol, he is both salve and wound, a cruel man whose presence is a reminder of better days. Jake’s ability to overcome a cocaine addiction, achieve professional success, and start a family with a much younger woman makes Colleen feel invisible and useless in a society that still values youth and beauty in women above all else.
Davis heartbreakingly renders the disturbed thought process of someone trapped in addiction. Colleen suffers magical thinking, paranoia, hypochondria, and depression. Her alcoholism isolates her from other people until the only friend she can call in a crisis is the caustic and agoraphobic Helen, a woman trapped by her own dysfunction.
The Empty Room sometimes reads like a tension-filled episode of Intervention told from the addict’s perspective. The reader is not sure, until the final pages, whether Colleen will choose life or death, but it’s certain she cannot continue along the same path. The book’s momentum comes from the realization that, should she choose to harness it, Colleen has the power to end the cycle of addiction that has plagued her family for generations.