Message in a Bottle
The Dinner: Something to Chew On

image

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.

—Miriam

A Tale of Revenge

image"I had to do what I had to do. This act was before me. In the uncanny light a sense of dread so overwhelmed me that tears started in my eyes and a single choking sound, a sob maybe, a wrench of hurt, burst from my chest. I crossed my fists in the knitting and squeezed them against my heart."

—Joe, The Round House

Revenge is always a good topic, and the National Book Award winner The Round House does a sly job of convincing readers that vigilante justice is both necessary and inevitable. Joe is only thirteen, but when his mother is brutally raped, he’s forced to grow up fast. The local priest preaches that out of every evil comes good, but Joe fails to see the good in his mother’s overwhelming depression and his father’s helplessness. The jurisdiction issues that surround his North Dakota Indian reservation will protect his mother’s attacker. So what’s a kid to do when his family has been broken and justice isn’t forthcoming? The way the story unfolds makes it easy to understand why he’d want to take matters into his own hands.

image

The title of The Round House refers to the place the attack occurred. A round house is the place of village religious activities, and in the book the round house is located at the intersection of native and state land. Even though the attacker is identified fairly early, the location of the crime will make it even harder for justice to be served. The situation demonstrates how easily the rights and safety of American Indians have been disregarded by our national culture. It also shows us how extenuating circumstances can transform a victim into an aggressor.

imageimageIn stories of revenge, violence begets violence. A good tale of vengeance lets us vicariously stick it to the bad guy. Books like Carrie, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and The Count of Monte Cristo come to mind. The emotional intensity of the revenge theme has inspired many great works of literature. I liked The Round House, although it felt slow at times. Justice, like all satisfying conclusions, requires patience.

imageLast year’s Gone Girl comes to mind as an excellent revenge tale, less literary and more surprising than The Round House. Those characters are far more diabolical than Joe, yet the writing is good enough to convince us that their motivations might be logical. The ending raises more questions than answers, and sets a new standard for how an act of revenge should turn out. That is the ultimate question, right? After the satisfaction settles in, what should happen next? Will something good come out of something evil?

The ending of a revenge story is probably as challenging for a writer as a reader. Even if the avenger gets away with their act of retaliation, their life will never be the same. The need to act, and the fearlessness required to deliver justice, is the ultimate test of character. And should we admire them or disapprove? Either way, these questions make for compelling fiction.

So now your turn. What are your favorite tales of revenge?

—Miriam

Marriage is the Ultimate Mystery

Gone GirlYou can often find Marni behind the front counter of Island Books, her honey-colored hair and love for dogs an innocent cover for her reading taste. She’s the other Island Books staffer besides me who gets positively giddy over a good psychological thriller. This became obvious when Marni and I tried to snatch an advanced copy of Tana French’s Broken Harbor out of each others’ hands. In a friendly way, of course. So when she emailed me at the end of March to say “There’s a new mystery/thriller by Gillian Flynn called Gone Girl that you should read. I’m so excited for it to come in so I can sell it!” I knew what needed to be next on my reading list.

I’m limited in what I can say without spoiling Gone Girl, but I will tell you this: no matter how much you think you have the mystery figured out, the second half of the book will blow you away. And if my review here isn’t sufficient to hook you, ask Marni to tell you more about Gone Girl when you drop by the store. Her eyes will light up (as much as if you bring your dog by).

Here’s a book that looks like a classic “the-husband-did-it” thriller. Believably told from alternating points of view (and not all writers can pull this off well, but Flynn does), the story begins when bar owner Nick comes home to find his stay-at-home wife Amy has disappeared, leaving only suspicious signs of a struggle, some tell-tale blood on the kitchen floor, and the back door wide open. As the investigation begins, sections of Amy’s diary written in past tense are interspersed with Nick’s experience in the present as he deals with the aftermath of her disappearance.

Amy tells the story of how they met as young writers in New York, fell in love, and got married. Then the economy turned sour and both lost their jobs, which led to a decision to move back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri to care for his dying mother. Amy’s parents are bestselling authors of a children’s book series called Amazing Amy, which chronicled a fictional version of their daughter as she grew up. Their bestselling work turned Amy into a trust-fund child, and allowed her to loan Nick the money to open a bar with his twin sister, Margo.

The Amy that comes across in the diary is madly in love with her husband and increasingly lonely after they leave New York. She leaves behind warning signs in her narrative that suggest that they struggled in their marriage and Nick has a temper he can’t control. Nick, on the other hand, despite his earnestness over the seriousness of the situation, lies to the police, Amy’s parents, and worst of all, us readers. The media doesn’t like him and his behavior following Amy’s disappearance is suspicious. We can see where this is going. Nick must be the one responsible. The question is why, and how. Or is it?

That’s where the story seems to be going, but then we’re smarter readers than that, aren’t we? The explanation can’t possibly be that simple. Then other suspects begin to pop up, including stalkers from Amy’s past (she’s had a few since she was the inspiration for a popular children’s book character). Her parents seem a little off, too. And then there’s that something that Nick’s sister Margo is hiding…

At this point in the review I’m using all my restraint to keep from dropping the bombshell on you. All I can say is you’ve never met a villain as creepy and distinctive as this one, or an ending that’s as uniquely disturbing. The darkest parts of this novel are not the crimes. What’s most unnerving about Gone Girl is, shockingly, the true nature of Nick and Amy’s superficially normal marriage.

—Miriam