Monday, January 9, 2023

Book Review: City Under One Roof

By Jami Denison

City Under One Roof is a title that sounds like a metaphor, but it’s an accurate description of the town depicted in Iris Yamashita’s debut novel. In tiny Point Mettier, Alaska (which could be a stand-in for real-life Whittier, Alaska), all the residents live in the same condo building, and during the winter they can barely leave it. When Anchorage detective Cara Kennedy arrives to investigate body parts that have washed ashore, she is trapped when an avalanche closes the only tunnel that connects to the mainland. As she investigates the death, Cara learns that many residents have secrets – and so does Cara herself.

The citizens of Point Mettier seem similar to the quirky-but-harmless folks that populate other fictional Alaskan towns like Cicely (Northern Exposure) or Elmo (Men in Trees). There’s Lonnie, a mentally challenged adult woman with a pet moose. Teenage Amy, who helps her mother run the city’s (terrible) Chinese restaurant in between their battles. Along with Cara, these three are the (third person) point-of-view characters. Amy is dating Spence, whose mother Debra teaches at their high school and is hiding a secret of her own. The town’s police chief has a surprising connection to Lonnie, and his deputy, J.B., teams up with Cara and quickly develops a crush on her. The quirkiness of the characters sometimes leads to an uneven tone between drama and comedy, especially in the first half of the book. 

Yamashita is a screenwriter, and it’s easy to see the influence of the screen in her writing. The book is driven by action and set pieces, and the Alaskan topography would pop on film. At the same time, City Under One Roof seemed a bit too plot-driven to me. I wanted to know more about the characters’ back stories than I was given. With Cara an outsider, Amy a teenager and Lonnie challenged, there was no insider point-of-view that could have given the reader a more detailed description of these characters’ histories. Lonnie was especially compelling, and I wanted to know more about her stay in “the Institute.” 

Similarly, I found it a bit of a let down that the bad guys were gang members from another village (this is revealed early on in the book and in the blurb) who are able to come to town on snowmobiles. Because of this, readers miss that sense of personal betrayal that happens when the author reveals the bad guy was hiding under the protagonist’s nose, and how their machinations worked. Yamashita also leaves a huge plot thread dangling as the book’s final reveal.

There’s enough material with this setting and the Cara and J.B. characters that Yamashita could develop City Under One Roof into a series. The dangling plot thread almost demands at least one more book, and I would certainly read it. From my warm home in Florida. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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