The Dinner by Herman Koch takes place in a fine dining restaurant in Amsterdam and follows a five course meal between two couples linked by their patriarchs, brothers Paul and Serge Lohman. Besides familial ties the couples are also linked by recent, shocking events concerning their sons Michel, Rick, and Beau. Let’s get to it.
The food descriptions were uttering boring. At least until I picked up that it was narrator Paul’s way of skewering the snobbish nature of the unnamed establishment and his brother Serge, a high-ranking Dutch politician, who chose the place. After that, I was hooked. But before that, I was unhooked, unhinged – sometimes as much as Paul – and uninterested. I am glad I stayed the “course” however, because the story got great when it focused on the events and emotions outside of the food.
The plot was compelling and brought up legitimate questions of morals and ethics that would be excellent conversation topics even if not derived from a novel. How far would you go for your family? What defines family? Which “level” or branch of your family is the one you deem the most important?
The Dinner raises these questions subtly and it culminates in 3rd act twists that one could not see coming – at least I didn’t – and they really sold the book for me. Even as I remembered having to slog through the food descriptions.
Koch also reveals the nature of his characters with skill. And again, with a subtlety that has one alarmed at the people on the page and also applauding the writer’s ability to sneak these facts through the narrative. Events turned in a way that you really kept questioning how you felt about everyone involved and their decisions which is great because it keeps you engaged in their world but also in our own. I was left wondering, what the hell would I do if I were in this situation?
Finally, a shout-out to Koch’s writing philosophy that was included as part of a discussion in my edition of the novel. He said when he comes up with his first two sentences he realizes he has just written a book. Everything comes from there. He says, similar to Stephen King, that he experiences the story along with his characters and while he knows its general nature, all he needs to do is draft the first two sentences – which can stay in his mind for years – and the book has written itself. I like it.
Give it a look!