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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Great Pick for Book Clubs

Does your book club need a suggestion for a title sure to provoke a lively discussion? If so, I recommend The Dinner by Herman Koch, a Dutch author. This novel was a bestseller in Europe and won the Publieksprijis Prize, the Netherlands’ literary award, in 2009. It was published in the United States in 2012. This satirical tale revolves around two couples meeting for dinner at a chic restaurant in Amsterdam. Each of the couples has a teenage son who may have been involved in a horrific crime that is currently under investigation. Just who knows what, how they feel about it and what they intend to do are questions that slowly unfurl as the tense meal progresses. Even the husbands and wives don’t know quite where they stand in relation to one another.

The novel is broken into segments like a formal meal: Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert and Digestif. There is a comical contrast between the ostentatious restaurant service and the seething tension building between the couples. As the buttoned-up waiter uses his pinky to point out each leaf and berry on the plate while detailing its origin and preparation, the four adults around the table plot against one another as if in a game of chess.

The husbands are also brothers: Paul, a former teacher who has been on extended leave after some odd behavior in the classroom, and the more charming and successful Serge who is running for Prime Minister. The novel is told from Paul’s point of view, so one naturally starts off with some sympathy for him as he discovers evidence of his son’s deeds and fears the end of his “happy family”.  Early on it becomes evident that Paul harbors a lot of bitterness towards Serge and is something of a misanthrope. How much of this he may have passed on to his son through nature or nurture is a question even Paul can’t answer. As the novel progresses and the depravity of some of the participants is revealed, it is hard to know where, if anywhere, to place one’s sympathies.

How far will a parent go to protect his child, even if that child has done the unspeakable? The Dinner leaves the reader with some chilling unanswered questions about how much each character knew and when. The nuances that are left open to interpretation are sure to spark some debate and speculation within your book group.

- Suzanne Summers LaPierre, Kings Park Library

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