Review: Summer House with Swimming Pool

summer house with swimming pool_coverWhen Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool was translated, I shelved it after other reviewers said it was too much like The Dinner. I don’t mind authors who cling to one style (see: Benioff, see also: Tyler), but I’ve learned that a long gap between their books leads to a less predictable reading experience. Though their plots are different, The Dinner and Summer House share a similar narrator and voice. If you like one then you’ll like the other, but The Dinner wins out for its clever construction and concision.

Summer House begins as Mark Schlosser is accused of malpractice in the death of his celebrity patient, Ralph Maier. The story jumps back to the previous year when Mark and his family stayed with Ralph’s family in a luxe summer house (with swimming pool) on the Mediterranean. Ralph exudes a sleazy sexuality which he directs towards Mark’s wife and young daughters and thus earns Mark’s irritation. Given this set-up, it’s not hard to guess the reason for Mark’s animosity towards Ralph, but the specifics are slowly revealed amongst a slew of red herrings.

Mark and Ralph are both odious, but at least Mark is entertaining. He describes himself as a competent physician, but defines his success by how well he acts as a stop-gap between malingering patients and specialists:

A general practitioner’s task is simple. He doesn’t have to heal people, he only has to make sure they don’t sidestep him and make it to the specialists and the hospitals. His office is an outpost. The more people who can be stopped at the outpost, the better the practitioner is at what he does. It’s simple arithmetic. If we family doctors were to let through everyone with an itch, a spot, or a cough to a specialist or a hospital, the system would collapse entirely. (11)

And Mark accomplishes this in the minimum amount of time:

Patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention. They think I give them more attention than other doctors. But all I give them is more time. By the end of the first sixty seconds I’ve seen all I need to know. The remaining nineteen minutes I fill with attention. Or, I should say, with the illusion of attention. I ask all the usual questions. How is your son/daughter getting along? Are you sleeping better these days? Are you sure you’re not getting too much/too little to eat? I hold the stethoscope to their chests, then to their backs. Take a deep breath, I say. Now breathe out nice and slow. I don’t really listen. Or at least I try not to. (1-2)

Mark’s capable of being superficially charming which Koch pulls off to brilliant effect. Through Mark’s eyes, we watch him read people and sculpt his mannerisms and dialogue to suit their expectations. Only the reader, with a backstage pass to Mark’s internal disgust, catches the full picture. It feels like being let in on a secret.

There are a few negatives though…

Summer House should not be 387 pages. Mark’s asides illuminate his character, but there are too many of them. The writing style is swift and staccato, but the pace of the story is not. The key crisis isn’t revealed until page 257. This leaves a lot of action for the last 130 pages and makes the end feel comparatively rushed.

Mark’s a doctor because the plot wouldn’t work if he weren’t, but I don’t know why Koch opted to include medical-ish scenes that betray his lack of research. With less than 50 pages to go, I should have been eager for the story’s close, but instead I was Googling biopsies because my thoughts of “that’s not how it works!” were distractingly loud. Mark knows nothing about biopsies. Is this because Mark isn’t a specialist (something he’s sensitive about) or is it a gap in Koch’s writing? I’m going to slide the blame to Koch. While it’s possible that Mark makes a character-appropriate mistake, Koch writes that Mark’s bogus attempt at medical sabotage actually works. What now?

Further, the disease that decimates Ralph remains unnamed throughout the book. It sounds a lot like cancer. It probably is, but by not naming it, Koch robs Mark of medical lingo that might legitimize him as a doctor. Sure, the metaphors and clever one-liners are fun to read, but they don’t convince me that Mark knows his craft. The disease, which underpins the entire plot, doesn’t feel real—it feels like a poorly contrived boogeyman.

Overall: 3.4 It’s a unique book that falls short in places, but it’s ultimately worth reading.

Translation: I wouldn’t shell out for a hardback edition. It’s common in used book shops these days.

Review: The Dinner

the dinner coverHerman 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 (and Breaking Bad). 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.

Oy. 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

Translation: Read it, because I’d love to hear more opinions on the ending. This review is handicapped 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.)