When someone tells me a book rattled them, I become curious. When my mother-in-law says it over a text as we play Words With Friends, I’m even more intrigued.
“It was awful,” she said.
“But could you put it down?” I asked.
“No. I couldn’t stop reading it.”
Alarm bells went off. I’m okay skipping out on a disturbing book, if it’s bad. But compelling and impossible to put down? I’m not going to miss out on that. And so I had to pick up The Dinner by Herman Koch and see what she was talking about.
The Dinner is structured like a meal, and the setting is a pretentious restaurant, but this isn’t really a book about a dinner. This is a story about the lengths people will go to protect their children and how parents influence their kids. That subject isn’t immediately evident in the first half of the book. I’m guilty of skipping over the server’s description of the appetizer, the uncorking of the wine, and trips to the restroom. It was only when I was ready to give up on the entire book that the story became interesting.
The fact that The Dinner hit all the bestseller lists is surprising, considering it’s a foreign translation and perhaps an acquired taste for American readers, contains the most unlikeable characters possible, and takes a long time to pick up steam. That said, once I got into it I couldn’t put it down, just like my mother-in-law predicted. One big clue that I’d enjoy it was the back cover, which featured praise from authors of some of my favorite recent books, including Gillian Flynn and S.J. Watson.
Two Dutch couples meet for dinner to discuss a recent and troubling incident with their sons. Paul Lohman is the misanthropic and increasingly unreliable narrator. He and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge and his sister-in-law Babette that evening, and Paul loathes Serge. Serge is a slick and popular politician while Paul is a history teacher on indefinite leave, and they couldn’t be more different.
Paul seems to hate everything and everyone except his wife and son, Michel. The first troubling revelation is about the crime that Michel and Serge’s son committed, but as the story broadens, we learn more about Paul and how his actions may have led up to Michel’s dangerous mistake. What at first appears to be a cynical but insightful narration becomes harder to trust, as Paul reveals secret after secret leading up to this dinner. His past behavior becomes harder to justify, and the revelations that come with each chapter paint a growing picture of life viewed through disturbed lenses.
Without spoiling the surprising revelations that make the book so shocking and compelling, I will admit that the end left me thoroughly unsatisfied. I wanted to see the kids punished, to know the consequences of Paul’s previous actions, and more than that, I wanted a clearer understanding of Paul’s wife Claire, who surprises everyone, including the other characters, by turning out to be the complete opposite of what she seems. Lady Macbeth would have been proud of Claire.
The Dinner has been compared with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, another favorite thriller I read recently. If you enjoyed Gone Girl and could live with the ending, you’ll like The Dinner too.