Strangers at the Feast
Jennifer Vanderbes
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Buy *Strangers at the Feast* by Jennifer Vanderbes online

Strangers at the Feast
Jennifer Vanderbes
352 pages
August 2011
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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In this tense novel, author Jennifer Vanderbes presents a vital mix of mystery and social issues. The Olsen family gather to celebrate Thanksgiving 2007, bringing with them an assortment of petty judgments and silent animosities. When the tribe first meet at Ginny Olsen’s ramshackle house in suburban Mamaroneck, they’re blithely unaware of the strange and terrifying fate that awaits them.

At the head of the family is patriarch Gavin Olsen. A Vietnam vet with a long history of self-sacrifice, Gavin is married to Eleanor. Half of a traditionally-minded couple, Eleanor has spent much of her life having things done for her, first by her father, then by her husband. Lately, Gavin’s arthritic knee trouble has brought a new morbidity into his thinking, forcing him to look back at the ups and downs of his marriage to Eleanor.

Eleanor has also been taking stock of her own world. At the same time, she has concerns about Ginny’s choice of adopting Priya, a little orphan girl from India. Now a magnet and a curiosity, Priya is troubled and disconsolate, and Eleanor questions how her daughter could accept a child with “countless difficulties.”

Gavin and Eleanor’s only son, Douglas, is struggling through a tense marriage. Unable to escape unscathed from the market-wide implosion, Douglas’s reckless real estate investments signified his "seven-year financial rollercoaster." Douglas's wife, Denise, is initially reluctant to attend the gathering, but now she hopes the dinner will be an outlet for her anxieties and give her a much-needed break from the larger mess in which she and Douglas have landed themselves. Denise is largely frustrated at the eccentric behavior of her in-laws, and she's visibly miffed that anyone other than Douglas’s mother is cooking the "family feast."

Clearly there is great love in this family, but there is also immense frustration, along with the detritus of what has been left unsaid. Most profound are the tatted scraps of private regrets: Gavin’s insularity; the chaos of Ginny’s romantic and domestic life; Eleanor’s strong passions that hint at defending her children; and Douglas, now two months behind on the mortgage, arriving home some nights pale and exhausted.

Vanderbes unfurls the family’s private reflections like a slow-roasting turkey. For the first time in months, there’s glimmer of hope. But when Ginny’s oven finally gives up the struggle, there’s a fierce conviction that the day will be a disaster. Soon enough this family's tranquil, groggy relaxation is derailed by Spider and Kijo, two black drifters who become a catalyst for the unexpected violence that rocks this quiet suburban neighborhood.

The author’s technique of telling her tale in alternate voices, while not new, adds to the domestic tension. Her prose is gorgeous, a ready backdrop to her major theme: the role of the male “warrior” in contemporary America. Racism morphs into a frightening reality, an end result of Douglas’s past distorted greed. Then there's Kijo, with his "watery fears," the true mystery behind his nature providing the brutal irony in Vanderbes's thoughtful, beautifully wrought tale.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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