Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Herman Koch’s The Dinner is . . . interesting. Before reading, I ran across a review that spoiled the ending and regretted this all the way through. I don’t mind spoilers for movies, but I crave suspense for books. This book relies entirely on suspense and mood; if you decide to read it, don’t go digging around on the Internet. The reviews on Amazon are particularly spoiler-heavy. Grr to that.

The story is outwardly simple: Serge Lohman, candidate for Prime Minister, invites his brother, Paul, to a posh restaurant. Paul immediately resents the location as it will give Serge another chance to show off, but brings his wife, Claire, to meet with Serge and his wife, Babette. The book is divided into sections (Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, Digestif) to follow their progression through the meal. This story takes place over a single evening; it relies on flashbacks to slowly provide context. It’s an odd little book, but well executed. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to how this book fares in its original Dutch.

The sibling rivalry between Serge and Paul is brilliant; it’s overstated and seems embellished for humor. Paul can’t stand to see his brother exploit his position to secure the best table at the best restaurant, then “act as though he had it all coming to him—that deep down he was still an ordinary guy, and that was why he felt entirely comfortable among other ordinary people.” (4) In articulating this, Paul puts his finger on the reason most people dislike politicians; he elicits sympathy from the reader that he has to watch Serge’s playacting from the front row. My favorite passage has to do with Paul’s disapproval of Serge’s table manners:

First of all, it was the sense of vicarious embarrassment, the unbearable thought that government leaders all around the world would become acquainted with my brother’s vacuous presence. How, even in the White House and at the Élysée Palace, he would wolf down his tournedos in three bites because he had to eat now. The meaningful looks the government leaders would exchange. “He’s from Holland,” they would say—or perhaps only think to themselves, which was even worse. That sense of vicarious shame was a constant. Our being ashamed of our prime ministers was the only feeling that created a seamless connection between one Dutch administration and the next. (236)

Where this book loses points is in its pacing. On page 120 you read: “This is what happened. These are the facts.” Finally, you learn the full cause of the dinner—you learn what happened between Paul and Serge’s children to warrant enough parental concern to merit a dinner discussion. The issue with their children changes the tone of the novel so much that I wished it had been set up better, or introduced sooner. You might assume the story takes off after the reveal, but instead it slows down and almost stops. Paul launches into a series of anecdotes that support the “twist;” some of these are good to know, but they’re punctuated by a lot of rambling. Once the reveal comes out, the reader wants more interaction between Paul and Serge, more details about the children, but the book remains resolutely Paul-centric. Yes, I know narrators tend to talk about themselves. Yes, his narcissism adds to the novel, BUT the book wanders until regaining enough steam for a truly bizarre ending.

This review is almost as vague as my view for Rebecca, but if you’re going to read it, then you shouldn’t know too much.

Overall: 3.7 (out of 5.0) This review is limited by my pathological aversion to spoilers. This is supposed to be a “book recommendations” blog, not a place where I spout complex theory/analysis and spoil every surprise in order to prove that I “understand” the brilliance of the author. (That’s not a shot at anyone in particular, but I hate those sorts of reviews. Further, that type of writing is why no one should ever read the introduction to any classic novel they haven’t already read.)

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