Sunday, July 7, 2013
Book Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch
Author: Herman Koch
Enjoyment Rating: ***
This book would be rated: R for language, violence, darkness
The Dinner is the kind of book I'm reluctant to review, because some readers might enjoy the book more if they know nothing about it. It's also the kind of book that's impossible to talk about without giving away some spoilers, so consider this your spoiler alert. When I bought The Dinner, it was on the basis of the Wall Street Journal review, which called it a "European Gone Girl." If you've read Gone Girl, a story where everything appears to be okay on the surface, but where the main characters are profoundly screwed up beneath that surface, you have certain expectations going into reading The Dinner. You're looking for clues that will reveal that this will be no ordinary dinner (I also think the cover of the novel, with the burned out space where the dinner plate should be, gives readers a pretty good clue).
However, in the first half of the novel, Paul, the story's narrator, does a pretty good job convincing his readers at that this dinner out with his wife (Claire) and his brother and his wife (Serge and Babette) is just another night out at a fancy restaurant, which is a normal occurrence for Serge, who is running for Prime Minister of The Netherlands. Paul's hatred for and resentment of his brother simmers just beneath the surface, and Paul's repeated insistence that he and Claire are just a normal happy family (he must reference the opening line of Anna Karenina at least half a dozen times) starts to feel quickly like the narrator is protesting too much.
The novel is plotted according to the courses of the meal, and at more than nine hours of listening time, is told in such detail, with so many flashbacks and so much insight into Paul's mind, that it takes significantly longer to listen to than it could possibly take the characters to consume their precious, overpriced meals, even with the manager coming over to explain the provenance of every single ingredient on the plates.
I guess the big twist of The Dinner is the fact that Paul is far less sane than he originally appears, and that the brothers' teenage sons have been involved in a series of heinous and highly publicized crimes, and the couples have come together tonight to decide what they will do about it. As the night progresses, the tension and the action both build, until the story hardly resembles the plodding reminiscences of the early chapters.