The Dinner by Herman Koch
The back of my copy of Herman Koch’s The Dinner has a flattering blurb written by Gillian Flynn, the author of the bestseller Gone Girl. It’s an apt choice to have Flynn provide a review since both The Dinner and Gone Girl tell the tales of psychologically troubled characters. Like Flynn, Koch excels at leading his reader down one path, only to have them discover that their opinion of the characters was completely wrong. It makes for not only a suspenseful book, but also one that sends shivers down the reader’s spine given the disturbed nature of these people.
The Dinner to which the title refers takes place at an upscale restaurant where Paul Lohman and his wife Claire are dining with his brother Serge and Serge’s wife Babette. Serge is on track to become the next prime minister of the Netherlands. To put it quite bluntly, Paul detests his brother, especially Serge’s attempts to present himself as an everyday Joe, when he is clearly not (case in point: the restaurant Serge has chosen reeks of pretension). As the narrator, Paul is brutal in his characterization of Serge and he spends the first part of the book annihilating him, jumping between Serge’s behaviour at the dinner and past recollections.
Koch expertly leads the reader on: what seemingly is just another tense dinner between two brothers and their wives suddenly becomes something much more significant once the true purpose of their meeting is revealed. It turns out the two couples are there to discuss the fate of their sons, who have gotten themselves into quite a bit of trouble, trouble that can jeopardize Serge’s political aspirations and put an end to Paul’s desire to have a happy family.
One aspect of the book that nagged at me was why a well-known politician, poised to become his country’s top leader, would choose to meet at a public place to discuss such a sensitive matter. I suppose there would have been less of an opportunity for Paul to criticize things if the meeting had taken place in one of their homes. Paul detests everything in the restaurant: the food, the employees, the other guests, and of course his brother. Though at first Paul seems like an ok guy (he is obviously devoted to his wife, for instance), his acidic commentary on the surroundings is the first clue the reader receives that Paul is perhaps a bit unbalanced. As Paul reveals more about himself and his family, the reader’s unease increases until it becomes genuine antipathy: these are not very nice people.
It is difficult to share more about the plot without giving too much away. Suffice it to say, Koch is a master at building up the reader’s perceptions of the characters and then completely throwing them for a loop. As the book progresses, he parcels out additional information about the characters that sends the reader reeling. No one is as they seem especially Paul, Claire and their son Michel. They will do anything to protect their way of life and their immediate family. Ultimately, this is the central question of the book: how far would one go to preserve what they have? The answer, in the case of Paul, Claire and even their son, is very far indeed. The book ends on yet another surprising note: once again, Koch sets the reader up to believe that it will be the unhinged Paul who will step up to bat, but it is conniving Claire who proves to be the family’s saviour, so to speak.
The actions and decisions of Koch’s characters make this book a riveting one to read. It is fascinating to watch their true natures revealed and to witness how they ultimately deal with the situation at hand. Koch has written a highly entertaining and thought-provoking novel, one which I’m sure will be discussed by many readers as they ponder whether one should set aside their morality for the sake of self-preservation. The characters’ actions are unconscionable, that is for certain, but one has to wonder what you would do in their place?
Lili Collison still gets tingles when she enters a bookstore or library and sees all the potential good reads. An avid reader and baker, she raises three kids who thankfully also love books and eating dessert.