Chris Bohjalian | The Red Lotus

red lotus chris bohjalian

The Book: 

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian, 2020

The Characters: 

Alexis, ER doc
Austin, her boyfriend


The Plot (from Goodreads):

The first time Alexis saw Austin, it was a Saturday night. Not in a bar, but in the emergency room where Alexis sutured a bullet wound in Austin’s arm. Six months later, on the brink of falling in love, they travel to Vietnam on a bike tour so that Austin can show her his passion for cycling and he can pay his respects to the place where his father and uncle fought in the war. But as Alexis sips white wine and waits at the hotel for him to return from his solo ride, two men emerge from the tall grass and Austin vanishes into thin air. The only clue he leaves behind is a bright yellow energy gel dropped on the road.

As Alexis grapples with this bewildering loss, and deals with the FBI, Austin’s prickly family, and her colleagues at the hospital, Alexis uncovers a series of strange lies that force her to wonder: Where did Austin go? Why did he really bring her to Vietnam? And how much danger has he left her in?

Click here for book spoilers for <em>The Red Lotus</em>
Book spoilers ahead–if you haven’t yet read The Red Lotus, I suggest you turn back now.

The Twist:

Austin was involved in some kind of research to create bioterrorism weapons. They experimented on rats. He had lied to Alexis about why he wanted to go to Vietnam (his dad wasn’t wounded in the war and his uncle died far away from where they were). He had hid samples of the plague toxin in his cycling energy gels, and was going to sell them to someone in Vietnam. 

Douglas, the man who kidnapped him in Vietnam, is working to contain any information about Austin and their work. He is dating Sally, Austin’s boss, who is also in on the bioterrorism research.

Alexis tracks down the truth with the help of Ken, the PI she hired. They go together to tour the labs where Austin had worked. Douglas was planning on killing her then and staging it to look like she committed suicide (she had a history of cutting), so it was a good thing she brought Ken with her. However, right before the meeting, Alexis ate one of the energy gels containing the toxin. 

There is a confrontation between Alexis and Ken, and Douglas and the scientist. As they scuffle, the news breaks about the recall on the energy gels. Alexis is rapidly getting sicker, and realizes what happened. Douglas gets shot, and Ken chases after the scientist to stop him from releasing the infected rats. 

Ken dies from exposure to the toxin, but Alexis miraculously survives. (Really?? She ATE the toxin and SURVIVED?)

I spent the whole book hoping for Austin to be redeemed (find out that he was working to destroy the toxin or something), but he was in fact just in it for the money.

The Ending:

When Alexis left all of Austin’s things in Vietnam, the hotel manager donated them to a young family in need. That family gave a spare energy gel to a homeless person, who ate it and started a virus outbreak in Vietnam that soon spread worldwide. 

Sally was the “confidential interview” subject in italics throughout the book (this didn’t surprise me).

The Review: 

Very amusing that a book with plague themes (although rats, not bats) was published in March 2020! It’s scary that his work of fiction more or less turned into our reality. 

I liked the structure of the book, how the alternating viewpoints came together to tell the whole story. The varying perspectives kept the reader guessing in a way that wasn’t too jarring or confusing.

I love a strong female protagonist, and Alexis didn’t disappoint. She is smart and resilient, and won’t give up as she searches for answers about who Austin was and why he died. Juxtaposed with this is her obvious suffering, as she struggles not to fall back into her old patterns of cutting when she is distressed. I thought this struggle was really humanizing, and did a good job of making Alexis seem like a relatable flawed human.

The facts about Vietnam and the Vietnamese War that were thrown in throughout the story were very interesting. I also loved the description of the Vietnamese settings. I said this on a recent view, but when I can’t travel, I love to read about places I haven’t been yet!

Also I love the cover.

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