The Dinner by Herman Koch

 

Herman Koch examines each detail of his diners as closely as the waiter articulates the origin of each course. Nothing is too minute to point out, but it isn’t boring. It’s a slow reveal with building tension much like a Hitchcock film; you’re actually poised in your chair for the conclusion, practically unable to wait for it any longer. As Alfred Hitchcock says, “There’s no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

Four parents meet at an exclusive Dutch restaurant to hold an important discussion about their sons, and as we go through each course, from aperitif to dessert, we become increasingly aware that something terrible has occurred. Through veiled looks and subtle movements, to the point of shouting and crying, we are led through the dinner. Through the actions of their sons. Through the shocking conclusion.

Perhaps what is most shocking is the attitude of the parents, the way that one pair wants to reveal all that has happened, while the other pair not only wants to hide it but ignore it. I found myself wondering how it is that some people are able to focus more on image than on truth. Or, on getting by than being accountable for their actions. And throughout the novel are little lines which made me stop short.

One father tells us in his narration, “We never tried to influence him (his son); we would have let him have any dessert he liked, so you couldn’t blame it on his upbringing. It was hereditary. Yes, that was the only word for it. If heredity existed, if anything was hereditary, than it had to be our aversion to sweet desserts.” (p. 221)

Sweet desserts?! Sweet mother of God, desserts have nothing to do with the situation about which we are reading. I was mesmerized in my chair all day yesterday, unable to pull myself away from this novel which forced me to examine parenting. Responsibility. Heredity. The consequences of our free will.

The Dinner is an exceptionally exciting novel, with none of the conveniently contrived conclusions that I have found in so many “thrillers”. It would be perfect for a book club discussion, although it is perfectly suited to reading all in one day, by oneself, such as I did.

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48 comments

  1. I found this such a harrowing novel. Like you, I read it quite quickly and was completely taken in by the initial semblance of civility, only to realize what a mess both couples were in. Both families. Where to ascribe responsibility…

  2. This sounds fascinating! I love the Hitchcock comparison too. I remember somebody asking for several copies of the book when I was working in a bookshop last summer, and it does sound like something I'd like to read. Hope you're doing well! Lucy over at Tolstoy Therapy.

  3. I wasn't interested in this book before but you definitely piqued my interest, especially when you mentioned parenting and it being a thriller. I'm really, really curious now. Will definitely pick this up now, thaaank youu! x

  4. I've read a few reviews of this book with my eyes sorta averted so I wouldn't learn too much about it. I've had the feeling I couldn't bear the story, but you caught me with the Hitchcock comparison! I'll read it and come back to read your whole post with both eyes on it.

  5. I thought this was a marvelous book. I think I took more than a day with it but not much more. By then end I was glued to my chair, mouth hanging open in shocked horror. It ended up on my top ten list for the year, and likely would have been number one or two if I did that sort of count.

  6. Bellezza, I knew you would enjoy this one :) The Dinner is a fantastic book to read – there is just so much to explore over the course of a meal. I found myself thinking about the book for days afterward. Makes one wonder how far a parent will go to “protect” his/her child.

  7. This was quite a big deal here in Belgium and the Netherlands when it was published, I know that it really provoked a lot of discussion and divided readers. I was rather put off by all the brouhaha. But your review has intrigued me. I wonder if I can manage to read it in Dutch? I am sure the library has it…

  8. I haven't read any reviews on this yet, although I've seen it around the blog-o-sphere. Probably mostly in ads when it first came out. Still, I can see why the topics presented would not be recevied well.

  9. Harrowing is a perfect adjective! I also love how you said “the initial semblance of civility” because we come to find out it's anything but. Great comment, Theresa, summing up what I tried to say in several paragraphs.

  10. I wonder if they were asking for several copies for a book club…I didn't realize it was out last summer, but that's usually how long it takes for me to read something “hot”. :) Hope you're doing well, too, Lucy. xo

  11. Well, Nan, I'm afraid that the story is a bit hard to bear (especially from us conscientious parents), but it is so interesting. So suspenseful. So well written. Hope we can discuss it if/after you read it.

  12. I only took one day because we've had such an incredible winter of snow and freezing temperatures that I've had little else to do but read (and cook and clean). I'll take a winter like this any year! ;) Anyway, I can certainly see how it would end up on your top ten list for the year.

  13. Isn't it interesting how the story parallels the course of a meal at a fine restaurant? Even the restaurant is concerned with keeping up appearances, much like one (or, now that I think about it, both) of the couples. I should have mentioned that in my review. It was the perfect setting for such a story.

  14. I was just asking for book club suggestions, yesterday, and The Dinner was among those recommended. I've heard it stimulates noisy, divisive discussion. My group would probably love it for that reason alone. They seem to like shouting at each other. I love the fact that we can disagree loudly and then go home not thinking any less of each other.

  15. I've seen so many mixed reviews for this book and it hasn't really appealed to me until now. You're review has me intrigued and I do so love an edge-of-the-seat type of read, so this may be perfect for an upcoming trip with a longish flight (followed by a few day on the coast with nothing to do but read!!!).

  16. And, even though I've turned the last page i find myself still thinking about it. For example, tonight I was pondering thenfather's tendency toward violence and how that permeated the whole family. Lots to think about, lots for a book club to discuss.

  17. Les, now I'm hoping I haven't built it up such that it exceeds expectations. I just was truly engrossed in the writing, the story, the characters. I suspect you will be too, and can I come on vacation with you?

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