The Dinner by Herman Koch: Deconstructing a Family Course by Course

When our book club selected The Dinner by Herman Koch, I prepared myself for a dull read. The entire novel takes place over the course of one meal. Two couples. Three courses. One expensive restaurant. The Dinner sounded more like a play than a novel, and I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for a book long on dialogue and short on plot.¬†But I was gripped by the Dinner from the first page, from the pre-dinner aperitifs. The Dinner has accurately been described as a “European Gone Girl” by the Wall Street Journal.

The DinnerAlthough the Dinner is structured around one meal, the story and the characters are deepened through short, well-timed flashbacks. Just like the nuances of a dish come out with the second and third bites, my perceptions of the characters were radically different by the time the check was presented. The Dinner brings together two brothers and their wives for a difficult discussion at one of those hip restaurants with six month wait lists, the type of restaurant where the origin of each ingredient is described in detail by a pompous waiter as he waves his pinkie over different parts of your mostly empty plate. One brother, Serge Lohman, is favored to become prime minister, a few months away from the election. Paul, the other Lohman brother, is not famous in any way, and his bitter jealousy snakes through his every comment as the narrator of the story.

The drama unfolds dish by dish, and as though you were sitting at a nearby table, you’ll be drawn in, unable to resist eavesdropping, increasingly shocked by the disfunction of the relationship of this famous politician and his family. Claire Messud, in her New York Times review summarized the darkening mood well, “There is a bracing nastiness to this book that grows ever more intense with the turning of its pages.” The Dinner was translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett but the prose is elegant and the dialogue flows. This is a great read, whether you’re reading it by yourself or for a book group. You’ll want to discuss it, possibly over your own dinner, as soon as you finish it.

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