by Herman Koch
What a whirlwind novel! The whole story is told from the point of view of Paul, a middle aged man on his way to dinner with his wife, his brother Serge and his sister-in-law. The quartet is meeting at a fancy restaurant and as dinner progresses we learn the reason for the gathering.
Without including any spoilers I can say that the book is dark, but so good. It plays with the ideas of nature vs. nurture and sibling rivalry in a fascinating way. Serge is expected to be the next Prime Minister and his fame attracts additional attention to their table. As Paul’s patience shortens and each new course is served the tension mounts. I loved the details of the book. The interactions with the waiter, the descriptions of the food, all of it added to the pleasure of reading.
It reminded me a bit of We Need to Talk About Kevin in the way that an unreliable narrator is talking about the present day and also flashing back to past action in the story. We learn things in bits and pieces. The reader has no idea if Paul is skewing the story to show his family in a better light. We also don’t fully understand his wife’s position on everything at first.
The relationship between the siblings is both tense and primal. We don’t ever really think our siblings have changed from those individuals we grew up with. We see our siblings in a completely different way than the rest of the world does. We know their secrets and their weaknesses. In some ways we see them more clearly, but we also bring our own immature prejudices to the relationship because we have a shared history when we were both sensitive and vulnerable.
There are books where the characters are not likeable and that ruins it, but I think often that just means the writing isn’t as good as it should be. This novel is full of unlikeable characters but that had no impact on my enjoyment.
BOTTOM LINE: I honestly couldn’t put it down. I read the whole thing in one day. Highly recommended for whenever you’re in the mood for a dark twisty look at family relationships.
Pairing Books with Movies: The Good Son (1993) is a perfect pairing with The Dinner. It stars Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood as two young cousins who become friends but then one of them starts to show signs of violence. It’s creepy and shares some similar themes with the book.