Koch is nothing if not a consistent provocateur. The Dinner served up a tale of unlikable characters confronting a serious dilemma between two families, their discourse conducted in an expensive restaurant setting, the barbarity of their sons’ actions muted amid the ambient clatter, the pouring of wine and entrée selection. This novel is no exception: set at first in the Netherlands, a mélange of characters with obvious flaws—a physician and his family, a famous stage actor and his family—all with a sophisticated European sensibility that assumes a tolerance of human foibles, more broadminded, more casually cynical and brilliantly set in a vacation gathering of friends on a holiday, society relaxing its rules.
Narrator Mark Schlosser is a general practitioner with a celebrity client list that affords him a number of invitations to stellar events, which he attends only occasionally and usually without his wife, Caroline, or lovely daughters, Julia and Lisa. Known for his accommodation with his prescription pad, Schlosser has recently attracted the attention of actor Ralph Meier, a larger-than-life personality with an eye for the ladies—including the lovely Caroline after a house party the Schlossers attend. Although not averse to the attractions of Ralph’s wife, Judith, Marc is quick to notice Meier’s covetous gaze when assessing Caroline, disturbed by the actor’s rapacious mien. Reluctant to join the Meiers and their two sons on summer vacation in the Mediterranean, Marc nevertheless selects a camping site near enough to the rental house that the families come in contact with one another. Unlike his relationship with other patients, Marc seems willing to tolerate Ralph’s grandiosity, inclined to support the suggestion that they move their tent to the vacation property, complete with swimming pool.
A keen observer of human nature (Marc prides himself on his dispassionate examination of patients and the less attractive aspects of the human body) his clinical attitude perhaps deludes the physician into assuming his role as observer studying the habits of the actor and his family, including film director Stanley Forbes and his shockingly younger companion, Emmanuelle, who have settled themselves in the guest house. Suddenly, pitching the family tent on the grounds has a certain appeal. What might have been a boring and tedious camping trip is now a gathering of young and old, two men and their wives, adolescent children cavorting in the pool or playing ping pong, joyfully parading their nubile bodies before adults enduring the inevitable ravages of time. A girl on the cusp of womanhood, Julia flirts with teenaged Alex, her younger sister content to trade insults with Thomas. Sun, alcohol, indulgence and excess accompany lazy days where responsibility seems far away, pleasure readily available.
There is another layer to the novel, an element that adds the weight of decision, one made in a moment of quiet rage and certainty but hidden behind a false smile and the power to affect the well-being of a patient. Schlosser plays both judge and jury, man and father, his own selfishness a distraction while tragedy strikes at the heart of any notion that children can ever be protected from the world. Scenes of bacchanalia and innocent exuberance alternate as Caroline tires of the lack of privacy and Marc yearns for a moment of intimacy with Judith. Ralph’s personality dominates every scene, the consummate actor on stage, the aging Forbes capturing every nuance with his camera, from the sleek young Julia basking in the sun to afternoon barbeques where Ralph officiates and the drinks flow.
Schlosser’s thoughts are often disturbing but never ambiguous, revealing a calculating mind and innate ability to mask his feelings while inwardly seething. When excess and revelry beget tragedy, Koch fashions a reckoning stripped of sophistication. The realities of youth and age brutally contrast, a collision that provides the grist for Schlosser’s subsequent actions, a heady brew of desires, appetites and expectations. Though Meier would seem to be the fulcrum around which everything else balances, Schlosser wields power as well in a macabre dance between two former friends. Koch redefines the notion of a family vacation, a study of humanity at its most unguarded, consequences of temptation an insufficient deterrent, foolish choices yielding irrevocable results. Like The Dinner, Summer House with Swimming Pool is sure to generate heated conversation.