Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Title: The Dinner
Author: Herman Koch
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: February 12, 2013 (English edition)
Source: personal purchase

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

It's a summer's evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse -- the banality of work, the triviality of the holidays. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.
     Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children. As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.
     Tautly written, incredibly gripping, and told by an unforgettable narrator,  The Dinner  promises to be the topic of countless dinner party debates. Skewering everything from parenting values to pretentious menus to political convictions, this novel reveals the dark side of genteel society and asks what each of us would do in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

My Review:

If I had to name the book that was recommended to me the most times in the last year, it would be The Dinner.  I think I have the Wall Street Journal to thank for that, since it billed the novel as "the European Gone Girl" several months back.  (Must I remind you for the eleventy billionth time how I feel about Gone Girl?)

Okay, I knew I had to give this one a try.  I put it on my 30 Before 35 list to make sure it happened relatively soon, and here we are.

First of all, even though the two novels are vastly different in subject, I can see why the WSJ made the comparison with Gillian Flynn's novel.  It's more a comparison of themes rather than actual plot points.  The most basic way to put it is that there is a complete lack of moral compass in both novels.  In The Dinner, Paul (our protagonist) introduces us to his three fellow diners, as well as the terrible actions of their children that prompted this meeting in a hoity-toity Amsterdam restaurant.  These specifics are unveiled very slowly--so slowly, in fact, that after a while I started to get bored.  I didn't see where the hook was, the "thing" that was going to make this novel grip me and stick around in my brain for a while, because I felt like I had all the details and could see where they would eventually take me.

However, the catch is that none of the characters are quite as they originally seem.  Yes, you get a lot of the details about the 4 diners in the first half of the novel--enough detail to make assumptions about how they will later act.  But you're going to assume these things thinking that they are capable of rational action...when in fact, they often are not.  Nope, I'd say these four are quite psychologically effed up, for lack of a better phrase (two of them in particular).  And that leads to a whole series of events that I didn't see coming.  That's the hook.

By the time I reached the end, I had mixed feelings.  I like how Koch took the four diners, introduced them quite slowly and methodically in the beginning, and then suddenly started revealing details that changed my entire perception of them by the end.  That's not easy to do, especially in a novel that is relatively short in length--and especially when one of the four characters in question is narrating the story.  Character development = A++.

However, the downside for me was that by the end, I felt like the choices made by these characters were almost too unbelievable.  I know a lot of Gone Girl critics that panned Flynn's novel for that reason, though I disagreed with that assessment in that case.  However, in The Dinner, that was precisely my issue.  I understand what Koch was trying to illustrate--the idea that we will go to great (maybe borderline insane) lengths to protect our families--but it was a little too out there for me at times.  Not to mention that some of the specifics were a bit far-fetched (ex: there's an important detail that's based around an "amniotic fluid test" for mental disabilities that I'm fairly sure does not exist). I left Gone Girl feeling like it was a situation that could actually happen--I didn't leave The Dinner feeling the same way.

My final assessment: as literary fiction, The Dinner is an intriguing piece of work.  The pacing and character development is spot-on, and for that reason I'd say it's definitely worth the read.  However, on the "psychological thriller" side of things, it didn't completely grab me.  And for this, I blame the Wall Street Journal--because is it really fair to compare two authors' work so directly?

Have you read The Dinner?   Do you think it's fair to compare it to Gone Girl?   And if you haven't read it yet, how do you feel when a novel is closely compared to another well-known one...do you think it creates good hype, or leaves too much room for overly high expectations?


  1. I really loved The Dinner (I read it without hearing it compared to anything) - I think that the comparison is pretty far off and probably hurt the novel more than it helped. The Dinner is such a slow burn, character focused book that lacks the fast-paced twists of Gone Girl. I think if you go in expecting something similar you'll probably come out a little disappointed in the end.

    1. I love the phrase "slow burn" for this novel...that is so true. And very different from Gone Girl. This one creeps up on you and is much less in-your-face.

  2. I am such a sucker for anything compared to Gone Girl... even though I know not to set my expectations too high, I keep picking up books based on that comparison. I haven't been terribly disappointed, but I guess that is probably due to managing my expectations. I have been curious about The Dinner- the cover caught my eye as I was browsing the other day. The character development sounds intriguing. I will have to add it to the TBR.

    1. I agree, I will read anything that is compared to G.G., even though I know that's hardly fair to those novels. And yes, the cover is pretty hard to pass up...it creeps me out!

  3. Not only do I want to read more books set in the Netherlands, as I'll be moving there this year, but this one sounds really fascinating. I think I had sort of heard of it before but hadn't really looked into it.

    And now, after your review, I shall be looking out for it! It sounds like the sort of book my mum would enjoy too, for all I know she might have it, haha =) Thanks for the review.

    By the way, amniotic tests can actually be used to test for things like Downs syndrome... I think it's mostly chromosome based conditions, which Downs is. I suppose it depends exactly what Koch meant they were looking for?

    1. Re: books set in the Netherlands, I highly recommend The Light of Amsterdam by David Park...loved it!!

      And with the amniotic tests...yes I know about the one for DS (have had to have it done with both of my pregnancies)...but in the book the syndrome they are talking about is purely mental in nature, not physical (which DS is)...so I'm not really sure how they could have tested for something like that, kwim?

  4. I've been resisting this one for a while as I've been shying away from most literary fiction lately... You're giving me courage, Kelly!

    1. I know what you mean, sometimes I need a break from literary fiction (I'm reaching the end of a long run of those novels right now and can feel myself getting bored)...

  5. Hmmmm I think I'm okay with it not being so great on the psychological thriller side, because I loooooove character-driven novels. I think I'd enjoy this. (I haven't read Gone Girl... I know...).

    1. Yeah, I think if you go into it expecting something more character-driven and "literary", you will be pleased!

  6. I've read this but I haven't read gone girl. It was quite shocking but I could actually see it happening.

    1. I think books that deal with such shocking topics have varied reactions from the readers, I guess based on everyone's own interpretation of what is plausible and what isn't. I found this one hard to get behind, but I know many others (like yourself) that see it as more of a possibility...I can see that having a big impact on how you feel about the book as a whole.

  7. It's so hard to comment about The Dinner without spoilers for people who haven't read it. (And I tried to review it, like you, without spoilers, which was also hard!) I thought The Dinner was better than Gone Girl, but when you know there's a "twist" or an unreliable narrator, as I did when I read Gone Girl, the book has already been partly spoiled, so it may be that The Dinner was more unexpected for me than Gone Girl, which I had already heard too much about. If any of that makes any sense.

    1. Agreed, writing this review took forever because it's hard not to give too much away! I had to keep re-reading the description to make sure I wasn't giving up more than what the book jacket already revealed.

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