I think this is one of those times where if you mistake the subject of a story for its purpose, you might come away disliking it. Also, your patience with highly unreliable and stylistically experimental narrators may have a lot do with it as well.
Spoilers for the first third or so of the book to follow, because what I have to say can’t be said without spoiling stuff (for what it’s worth, I had this bit spoiled for me as well and it didn’t affect my experience of reading the novel at all — in fact, it actually gave me more patience with the frustrations the narrator provides).
Room is narrated by a five year old named Jack. He lives in Room with his Ma, and with Rug and Bed and Lamp and TV as well. Room is Jack’s entire world. He was born there, and he doesn’t know any other reality. Even the images he sees on TV aren’t Real to him. Only what is in Room is Real. Well, and sometimes Old Nick, who comes at night, and brings them what they need.
If you don’t know the premise going in, the first couple chapters would probably be a bit disorienting, but as I noted previously, I knew the premise going in. Jack was born in Room because seven years before, his Ma was kidnapped by Old Nick and hasn’t left what Jack calls Room that entire time. Jack is completely unaware of this. Ma tries to make everything seem normal for him, making sure he exercises as much as possible, teaches him math and reading, playing games to keep his brain sharp. Some of the most interesting parts of the story come in the disconnect between what Jack sees things as and what we know Ma must be feeling. We get a feeling early on that this is going to be the main conflict of the book when Jack states over and over again his belief that what he sees on the TV isn’t Real, and Ma does nothing to correct him. If she did, he would know something was wrong.
Spoilers for the remainder of the book follow.
What I didn’t know going in was that only about the first third of the book (maybe even less) takes place in Room as Jack knows it. Donoghue gives us just enough time in Ma and Jack’s ‘normal’ routine to show us what it looks like when a) things go wrong (Ma has a bad tooth and can’t go to the dentist, for obvious reasons), and b) When we realize that Ma has had it, and is honing an escape plan she has been formulating probably for years. The last two thirds of the novel take place outside of Room, which I did not see coming at all. Going in, I was under the impression the whole novel would be told from inside, but in hindsight, doing so would have prevented Donoghue from exploring what she was obviously interested in exploring with this story.
It was really frustrating sometimes being in Jack’s head, not least because it was so convincingly written. Because of his unique circumstances, he fails to understand concepts that someone raised in a more ‘normal’ life would seemingly know automatically (read: us readers), and at times it makes him seem really dumb and annoying. But I think that’s also the bravest part of this book, is Donoghue’s determination to reconsider the world as seen through someone’s eyes who didn’t grow up in it, who in fact grew up believing that anything remotely like it only existed inside of a television screen. And I think that’s what this book is really about, not kidnappings and rapings and secret scandalous births, but the way that the human mind adapts itself to its surroundings, how it comes up with explanations and fits itself within parameters automatically in order to survive. And how fragile our minds are when removed from the circumstances that shape them, as can be seen in both Ma and Jack’s reactions to freedom. Jack misses Room because it was his home, and because Ma, by trying to give him as normal and happy a childhood as possible, actually taught him to love it and accept it as normal, despite her own fierce desire to be anywhere else. Ma, upon freedom, even despite wanting to be out of Room, also has trouble readjusting to the world, and the conflict between her and Jack and all these warring factors of wanting and not wanting the same things were simultaneously tiring and invigorating for me as a reader.
And yes, Jack still breastfeeds, and whether or not you think that is creepy is your problem to deal with. I thought it was very realistically done, and used by Donoghue as a way to indicate Jack’s mental state throughout the novel (as well as another way to provide a mental disconnect between what is considered ‘normal’ inside and outside of Room).
Anyway, this was a really intense read. Never read anything like it before. Definitely check it out, if for nothing else for a unique reading experience (good for your brain, those are).