If I had to give a definition of happiness, it would be this: happiness needs nothing but itself; it doesn’t have to be validated. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is happy in its own way” is the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. All I could hope to add to that is that unhappy families – and within those families, in particular the unhappy husband and wife – can never get by on their own. The more validators, the merrier. Unhappiness loves company. Unhappiness can’t stand silence – especially not the uneasy silence that settles in when it is all alone. – from The Dinner, page 6 –
Paul and his wife Claire go out one night to meet another couple for dinner. But this is not just any dinner. The other couple is Paul’s brother, Serge, and his wife Babette…and the purpose of the meal is to discuss their sons and a terrible act of violence. As the courses are served, the tension mounts until, eventually, the conversation moves from polite to one of confrontation. How far would a parent go to protect their child? Is happiness, fame, or reputation ever a reason to cross a moral line? The Dinner begins benignly and ends with a bang.
Serge is an up and coming politician whose notoriety opens doors for him. He and Babette live a wealthy and privileged life which is now at risk. Paul, on the other hand, is decidedly “off.” And it is Paul who narrates the story, teasing the reader with buried “facts,” and offering tiny bits of information which reveal a darkness in not only his heart, but Claire’s as well. The violent act is gradually revealed as the narration moves back and forth from the dinner scene to events which have recently occurred.
The Dinner is dark, sardonic, and skillfully written. Paul is a memorable, unreliable narrator who becomes creepier as the novel progresses. Thematically, the story explores family dysfunction, mental illness (is it genetic or environmentally triggered?), the gray line between amoral and moral behaviors, the disenfranchised and attitudes toward them, and personal responsibility. Herman Koch, who is the award winning author of seven novels and three short story collections, crafts a sharply observed tale of two interconnected families who are faced with a terrible decision.
I had a mixed reaction to this book. On the one hand, the writing is brilliant, the story compelling. On the other hand, the characters were highly unlikable. I don’t need to love the characters in a book to love a book, but by the time I finished reading The Dinner, I felt like I needed a bath to wash away the ugliness embedded within these families. Despite my aversion to the characters, my dislike of who they had become, I could not put this book down. I kept returning to its pages wanting to see how it would all end. Some readers in my Bookies Too Yahoo group found the plot a bit unbelievable. I disagreed, but I was left with some questions about what exactly was wrong with Paul. I can’t say more without spoiling the book for others.
Readers who have read and enjoyed Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich (read my review) or Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (read my review) will be drawn to The Dinner – a literary, psychological thriller full of dark secrets and dysfunctional husband-wife relationships. It is for those readers I can recommend Koch’s international best-seller.