Book Review: “The Dinner” by Herman Koch

The Dinner - Herman Koch

Fiction/Thriller/292 pages

For the amount of literary awards this book has received (NY Times Bestseller, USA Today Bestseller, LA Times Bestseller, and 2009 winner of Publieksprijs Prize), I was hoping that it would take my breath away…but it didn’t.

The setting takes place in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a high-end restaurant for dinner. Each couple has a 15-year-old son. Both sons are responsible for a terrifying act under police investigation that is shattering the lives of both sets of families. It appears to be a courteous dinner for both sets of couples, but what one does not know is that underneath the politeness, every smile is forced, and every kind word bears the opposite emotion. The author cleverly uses the courses of a meal and engages the story the exact same way. From apertif (the appetizers) to digestif (dessert), the story unfolds until it reaches its culinary climax when the conversation finally touches upon their children.

Somewhere in between the appetizers and main course, my ADD kicked in. I found it difficult to read forward when the only change of scenery is the restaurant’s back garden, or its restrooms. It flashes back to the night of the incident in question, but briefly. I wish the author expanded as much as he could on it. However, I did find some themes that the novel tried to crack open: the theme of “nurture vs. nature”, if parenthood creates a moral ambiguity within a parent, and what lengths parents are willing to go through to protect their children; all mixed in with a sprinkling of anti-Christian sentiments, and a dash of class-war ideology (it’s ok to hate rich people because they’re all jerks and greedy).

This novel was endorsed by Gillian Flynn (whose novel “Dark Places” I recently panned in this blog…but whose other two novels I gave praise for). She labeled this novel as “Chilling, nasty, smart, shocking and unputdownable.” Chilling? Yes, only by the end. Nasty?  Yes, given the incident in question. Smart? Sure. The author cleverly used the courses of the meal to tell the story. Shocking? No…which left me disappointed. Unputdownable? I couldn’t wait to put it down. Flynn may have the smarts and the experience of a literary expert over little ‘ol me, but I guarantee that authors like her and Koch don’t write novels so that they can read them for themselves privately and store them away in their personal libraries. Nope. They write them for readers like you and me.

So if you asked me to recommend you a really good book, this wouldn’t be the first to come to mind. But, it doesn’t mean you won’t like it. Give it a try.

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