Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: "The Dinner" by Herman Koch

Are children truly destined to repeat the sins of their parents? Are parents' protective instincts so ingrained that they'd stop at nothing to ensure their children's futures aren't harmed? These questions are addressed in Herman Koch's intriguing yet frustrating novel, The Dinner, which has sold millions of copies in The Netherlands (where Koch originally published the book) and across the world.

Paul and Claire Lohman have agreed to have dinner with Paul's politician brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, as they do from time to time. Always wanting to impress, Serge chooses a trendy restaurant at which you can rarely get reservations unless you call months ahead, the type of place where the host explains the origin of every ingredient, and the food is expensive and fussy. It's the last thing that Paul and Claire want to do, but they have an important topic to discuss.

After the talk about vacations and the latest Woody Allen movie has died down, after a prolonged emotional outburst or two, and even a photo request from a restaurant patron and his daughter, the discussion hits its target. Both couples have a 15-year-old son, and the two have been involved in a horrific act of violence which has sparked a police investigation and affected each boy differently. Each couple has a very different idea of how things should proceed, but one couple is far more determined to ensure their son's future is protected.

The core idea of this book is tremendously intriguing, and Koch draws out the suspense as he reveals detail after detail, much like peeling an onion. What the boys did is so disturbing that it's fascinating—and repulsive—how the parents are treating what has happened. The dynamics of the two couples, borne by both the protective nature of parents and the resentment of brothers, is very interesting; what remains unsaid is just as compelling as what is. My frustration with this book, however, is it takes far too long to get to the discussion about how to address what the boys have done. The narrative meanders all over the place, and while everything it touches on—Paul's own history of violence and anger, his fractured relationship with Serge and Babette—is relevant, I just wanted to know what would happen and found everything else a little distracting.

You may be able to predict some of how the book will conclude, but I was surprised by part of it as well, and I didn't feel it all worked. I can't figure out whether Koch, too, is commenting on the fierce instincts of parents and the lawless nature of teenagers today, or whether he believes, as he has Paul express, that some people deserve to be victims.

For me, The Dinner had tremendous potential that wasn't quite realized, but it is still a book worth reading, for both the way Koch lets the plot slowly unfold, and the shocking nature of the story. I would just keep in mind that the plot moves as slowly as dinners often do, and much like some dinners, it might not completely satisfy you in the end.

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