The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

“…even small delays can lead to the greatest calamities.”
The author is so intent on insisting that having mussels that evening was neither a sign or a  coincidence that you can’t help thinking straight from the beginning of the story that it is just that. And the sense of foreboding grows until it is almost palatable: the mother’s red, chafed hands; the scraping, scrubbing, and rinsing while bent over a bathtub; the way the children weren’t to help in case they would be blamed for the unbearable crunch of sand should it grind between their father’s teeth.
“Once, in the past, our family unity was endangered when Mum forgot the salt on holiday.” I can see, just by reading that sentence, how the least little error can upset a family when the father is prone to an arbitrary fury.
“Playing piano and reading books won’t get an engine started, my father pointed out…” Of course, only he, the engineer, is the smart one; only he knows the value of an entire stamp collection the family can ill afford which is to ensure the children’s future, even though the packets of stamps accumulate unopened in the wall unit which also houses the alcohol.
Of course, these are just little things, even though they do give an indication of the horror it would be to live under such a violent and cruel man whose anger one could never anticipate.
The mother likes beauty, harmony and balance, none of which she gets but all of which she strives for. It’s as though if she sacrifices herself enough, surely her husband will be appeased. But no, the jumpers and dresses she buys on sale because he has spent their money on made-to-measure suits, or exorbitant tips at expensive restaurants, are perceived by him as rejects. She embarrasses him when asked at a company dinner if she’d like a dry martini, and she says she’s only known them to be wet.
When she sits to play Schubert, she cries.

I awaited the ending of the book with a terrible apprehension. Surely something horrific must happen to such a horrid man. But no, as the mussels repel the family members waiting for their husband and father to come home for dinner after a certain promotion, a change overtakes the mother. Her conciliatory manner, which she thought served the family well, has disappeared. It had been replaced right before she found the strength to throw the four kilos of vile mussels away.

They have waited long enough.

Find a review from Parrish Lantern here.

26 thoughts on “The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke”

  1. I'm so glad the mother threw them away – hurrah for her!! What a horrible husband/father! Bellezza, this book sounds sooo good! Just by your descriptions and what you've written I can tell this book definitely moved you, which means it is most definitely a book worth reading.


  2. I too found this book deeply moving, and it is all very subtly done – no scenes of horror. It is studied in schools in Germany as a kind of allegory against the intrusive state and dictatorship, both Communist and Fascist. And perhaps this is how I read it. But it also works very well at the personal level.


  3. Lovely review, Bellezza. It's another one I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed at the time. There's a great sense of tension to the narrative and it works on a couple of different levels.


  4. I loved this one ,my only regret is why it had taken so long to be translated as a set text in most german schools it has stood test of time I feel ,all the best stu


  5. Yes, it was so encouraging to read of her gaining the emotional strength to quit succumbing when it did more harm than good. I've never had mussels. Though they were served to me inItaly, I could bear to even try one.


  6. It is definitely worth reading, and it's very short, too, not that that's a good thing necessarily. You'll just be able to fit in to a crammed pile already.


  7. You're so right, the subtly is so well done. With a mounting sense of terror. When you point out that it's an allegory, that makes perfect sense. When I lived in Germany, while he wall was still up, I spoke to many people from East Germany. I could see how that government suffocated, if not harmed, them.


  8. I think any food could replace the mussels. But, perhaps they indicate a food which no one but the father much liked. Plus, they were hard on the outside, and soft on the inside. The softness seemed to resemble his family's feelings contrasted with the roughness of the shell (him).


  9. It does indeed work on so many levels; a personal one, as well as a picture of government, just to name two. The mounting tension was one of the things that completely absorbed me.


  10. I'm intrigued! This is available on the NOOK, so maybe I'll download a copy.

    I've only had mussels once. We were visiting my daughter in Dallas and we went to a lovely restaurant where she ordered mussels in a garlic-wine sauce, served with sliced baguettes. It was quite delicious, although maybe I would've enjoyed it just as well without the slimy little mussels. Needless to say, my husband turned down his portion. 😉


  11. I was thrilled to find it on the nook. When all else fails, at least we have some of these copies in digital form.

    Bless you for eating mussels. One look, and I had to turn away.


  12. The book cover and the illustration is a work of art. Interesting that it's also related to food. (I still remember The Dinner.) The story sounds mesmerizing, something I'd like to dwell on. Thanks for this eloquent review.


  13. I enjoyed your review Bellezza and The Parrish Lantern review as well. I'd never heard of this book but it certainly sounds interesting. Take care.


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