The Dinner
Herman Koch
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The Dinner
Herman Koch
320 pages
October 2013
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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I had expectations of this novel, fed by clever cover blurbs promising a chilling, provocative story. In that sense, the promise was fulfilledóbut, like its setting in the country of Holland, the story proceeds with a veneer of manners and sophistication undercut by the savage hostility of one brother toward another. What appears to be sibling rivalry has deeper roots, but the particulars are never really made clear to the reader.

The title suggests the venue for the meeting between Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, and Paul's brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette. Serge is running for the office of Prime Minister of Holland in the next election, his face familiar to the public and the reason a table has been secured at an exclusive restaurant at a day's notice. When Serge and his wife arrive, Babette has clearly been crying, a fact she attempts to disguise with dark glasses, the flurry of attention over Serge defraying any unwanted attention toward his wife.

The reason for the meeting, ultimately, is the future of both couples' fifteen-year-old sons, who have apparently been up to some rather serious mischief that warrants their parents' involvement. Paul's son, Michel, and Serge's son, Rick, remain absent, though their presence is felt throughout the meal, if not the truly ugly details of the problem at hand. There is mention of Serge's daughter, Valerie, and an African boy, Beau, whom the couple has adopted, but it is the cousins who are facing critical decisions at the evening's end.

With the same precision as the five courses of the expensive meal, Koch portrays the intimate details of the brothers' relationship and that of their families over the years. With Paul as the narrator, citing Claire as his partner in every instance, the family's past is revealed, including a life-threatening illness Claire has overcome and the ongoing medical condition Paul refuses to name which has led to the end of his career as a history teacher. Paul believes that respect for privacy is sacrosanct, whether reading his wife's personal papers or tracking his son's cell phone calls, a habit that affords him great deniability.

Paul detests Serge's untrammeled hubris and grandiose ways, though he basks in that larger shadow, resenting the qualities that attract the awe of strangersócharacteristics that Paul lacks, albeit proudly. Ironically, the more Koch reveals about his four characters and their children, the less attractive any of them become, creating an antipathy for the couples and their impending moral dilemma, a dislike that is near impossible to overcome.

As the meal disintegrates in flurries of emotional hysteria and distractions, the less the idyllic dinner serves as a reasonable forum for two sets of parents seeking a solution to their sons' actions. Neither couple is remotely comfortable with broaching the topic, digressing whenever possible. Meanwhile, the courses and interactions are supplemented by the particulars of Paul's life as a teacher, husband and father, his triumphs and inadequacies, until the novel finally focuses on the issue at hand. Like the meal, my investment in these characters, especially Paul and Claire, becomes marginal, my distaste stronger than my curiosity, the writing curdling like spoiled food from a meal best forgotten. There is some shocking, universal epiphany at hand here, but I haven't the energy to care.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2013

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