The Dinner by Herman Koch (Translated by Sam Garrett)
Published: 2013, Hogarth (Originally 2009)
Genre: Adult Literary Fiction
Happiness needs nothing but itself; it doesn't have to be validated. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in it's own way.
Brothers Paul and Serge have arranged to dine at a fancy restaurant in Amsterdam with their wives Claire and Babette. It’s the sort of restaurant that Paul hates, ridiculously overpriced and full of waitstaff fawning over his brother. But this dinner is more about the conversation than the food, and the conversation is one that neither family can afford to ignore any longer.
The events of The Dinner take place over the course of the single dinner had among the brothers and their wives. But perhaps that’s not entirely correct. The present-day action takes place over the course of a few hours, but much of the novel’s present day gives way to flashbacks that help better explain the characters and their motivations for the dinner meeting. It’s an unconventional authorial choice that Koch made, but for the most part it works well.
Readers witness first-hand the notion that appearances can be deceiving. It’s not a novel notion by any means, but it takes new meaning in The Dinner. Here, readers are introduced to Paul, our narrator, who seems like a well-to-do sort of person, respectful of his wife, a proud father, and judgemental towards his falsely cheerful brother Serge (who clearly is just trying to impress people enough to win the prime minister election).
Aside from slight tensions here and there, not too much is revealed about any of the four individuals sharing a table upfront. Tensions abound and jabs are exchanged, but it’s unclear to what end.
And that’s what gives the flashbacks such power. They give readers an added perspective, getting both the outsider’s view of the family dynamics and a more intimate, nuanced perspective through Paul’s flashbacks. It’s an interesting dynamic, where one perspective continues to build upon the other, resulting in some shocking revelations. That being said, a book whose action is told through dinner party conversation and flashbacks does not necessarily make for the most interesting read.
The Dinner is a primarily character-driven novel, but one where readers will be hard put to find anything likeable or redeeming about the characters being presented. If anything, each additional detail makes the characters easier to dislike, any initial impressions slowly subverted.
Despite the lack of action, the rising tension does reveal quite a few surprises. The nature of the surprising drama here, however, doesn’t always work in the story’s favor. At times the drama feels unrealistic, and certainly forced. It’s not the sort of situation I could imagine with any sort of ease. Honestly, how readers feel about the reveals depends in a large part on whether they need to like - or even empathize with - the characters in a book.
One of the questions I discussed with my book club’s members was how much the story would have changed if it had been set in Washington D.C. instead of Amsterdam. There would have been slight changes here and there, of course, but I honestly think the majority of the story would have remained unchanged. On the one hand, it’s clearly a positive aspect of the book that it’s plot transcends national boundaries and understanding. On the other hand, I did wish that I had gained a bit more of a Dutch perspective from this book. As the majority of it does take place inside of a restaurant, I imagine it’s hard to fuse this book with much culture, I suppose.
It’s certainly a different sort of read, but ultimately a worthwhile one. Despite its relative brevity and lack of action, The Dinner nevertheless presents readers with a fascinating look into the human psyche and the lengths that some people will take to defend their loved ones.
Rating: 3 stars