Unlikeable Narrators: Summer House With Swimming Pool

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Random House of Canada in return for an honest review.

There seems to be an appetite amongst readers these days for books that deal with unlikeable narrators.

I’m not complaining. An imperfect, kind of horrible narrator makes for an interesting read. We were all introduced to Dutch author’s Herman Koch’s work through the terrifyingly brilliant The Dinner. Just in time for summer we have Summer House With Swimming Pool.

summer house

Marc is a doctor. His practice is mostly made up of artistic folks: writers, actors and artists who drink too much and visit him for prescriptions that will help with the side effects of drinking too much. He thinks he is better than his patients. When we first meet Marc, a patient of his, the famous actor Ralph Meier, has just died after a brief illness. Marc is supposed to go in front of the Medical Board because there is the possibility that there was some negligence that accelerated the illness.

As he ponders the possible decision of the Medical Board, he goes back through the last 18 months of his life – to the night when he and his wife went to an opening night of Ralph’s play; to the night of the first invitation to look in on them at their vacation home; to the night of the fireworks. Marc tells us how things came to be the way that they are, while waxing poetic about the foibles of men and women.

Like in The Dinner, the blanks of the present day are filled in with the narrator’s remembrances of days gone by. The characters are also cast in the same vein as Koch’s other book: I can’t think of one character that’s really likeable. And while I can’t say that I personally connected with any of the characters, I can say that I really enjoyed the ride.

There are so many twists and turns in this story. You think you have it figured out and you think that the rest of the book will just carry on in this same vein but Koch isn’t finished yet. I found that Marc’s relationship with the women in his life, his two daughters on the verge of womanhood, his wife Caroline who gets frustrated with his permanent role as the good guy, Ralph’s wife Judith who irritates and fascinates him equally, changes throughout the book. He has to decide what he’s going to be to each woman, how he’s going to react to the things that happen to them – will he act like society expects him to or will he give in to the animal instincts that his medical school professor was always going on about?

I really like Koch’s unapologetic style of writing. He seems to say “if you don’t like this, I don’t care. It’s my story.” And I agree that it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you can get into it, I personally think it’s a thought-provoking read that’s sure to start a discussion with fellow readers.

42 thoughts on “Unlikeable Narrators: Summer House With Swimming Pool

  1. I’ve been looking forward to getting to this, since I’m also a fan of Koch’s. You’re so right about his nonchalant style and I think that’s why I like him so much. Glad to hear it’s worth checking out!

  2. I still have not read The Dinner, but I own it, so I will probably try to get to that one first. But I like what you say about his unapologetic writing style. It makes me want to read his books!

  3. I like reading unlikeable narrators just to be contrary – like your brother says, “What is wrong with people?” I’m currently reading Apple Tree Yard and that has an unlikeable narrator. However, I think the problem with that is the narrator is unlikeable because the author has failed to push any sympathetic motive. I think it’s a thin line – I like my characters to be unlikeable because they’re plain selfish larger than life like the girl out of Gone Girl. It sounds like Summer House is more in that vein?

  4. From the second I picked it up it had Koch’s distinctive style. Part of that i liked, but I was also always waiting for the twists and turns of The Dinner. It was like I constantly knew something unexpected was going to happen. Because I’d never read Koch when I read The Dinner my expectations were so different and that made it better.

    • That’s always the risk of reading a follow up to a book that you loved! I felt like Koch kept me guessing and I really liked how it all wrapped up. He has a knack for capturing human nature, even though it’s not always a flattering portrait.

  5. I absolutely can’t wait to read this! I just read The Dinner about a week ago and was so excited to see a new book being released just in time. I like Daniel Koch’s unlikeable characters because they stick in your head and keep making you second guess everything.

  6. Who has finished reading Summer House with Swimming Pool? I need to discuss. What do you think really happened…..???? Who did the Rape if she was rapped. The donkey conversation at the end of the book???

    • This is definitely one of those books that needs to be discussed ASAP.
      The donkey conversation: remember there was that donkey at the campground that was really sick and badly treated? Marc was upset by it and wanted to do something. The photo is from the animal sanctuary where they took the bird later but the donkey wasn’t there at that point. Clearly someone (Marc?) took the donkey from the campground where it wasn’t treated properly and gave it to the sanctuary – they had told Marc and his daughter that they took in all kinds of animals.
      The rape…she was definitely raped but I don’t want to spoil it for others!

      • I was wondering if there is more meaning to the donkey conversation, such as revealing more about the actions of one of the characters, but I’m not sure how to put it all together (or if there really is any more meaning to it).

        Please, add spoilers on this and any other aspect of the book, obviously marking them for those who have not finished the book. I just finished it and am hoping to find more discussion, but I’m primarily finding reviews aimed at people who have not read the book.

      • Wait wait wait! Spoil it — at least for me. I read the book. I totally didn’t get the ending. And hence Googled and found your post. Did you believe Ralph on his deathbed? Or was it Marc? I’m not sure how I feel about a book that leaves me THIS confused with the ending. And what was the whole point of the campground guy and the fact that he disappeared? I thought he was going to be tied into everything later. Email me if you don’t want to post your answer here and ruin the book for anyone who may be reading the comments.

      • Mel,
        I totallly agree with you! The reck the guy missing what was the point. What was the purpose of the donkey story at the end???
        I don’t know if I believe Ralp.
        Also why did Marc want him dead so badly when he was not clear who actually did the rape?
        I wanted it to all tie togeather but it didn’t…unless I am just not understanding the irony.?????

      • The campground guy seemed completely superfluous unless his sole purpose was to give Marc a reason to leave the area without pursing the rapist there. So fine, we can reason that the campground guy didn’t rape her. Which leaves us with Ralph raped her and lied about it. The son raped her and Ralph lied about it. Ralph told the truth on his deathbed. Stanley raped her (and seriously, what parent would fly their child to California to allow someone to take more photos of their child?). Or Marc raped her. Shouldn’t we have a little more clarity as to what happened?

        I’ve read books that were clearly left open-ended for a reason. And I’ve read books that neatly tied up the plot. But this is the first time where I’ve gotten to the end of a book that I sense has one ending in the author’s mind, and I can’t figure out what that ending is.

    • “But this is the first time where I’ve gotten to the end of a book that I sense has one ending in the author’s mind, and I can’t figure out what that ending is.”

      Major spoilers here :

      Whether the author has a definite ending might be the first question to be answered. When I finished the book I initially had the feeling that I was missing something and that the answer was in the final chapters. However glancing back it remained ambiguous, and from doing Google searches I found that every other reader also seems to find the ending ambiguous. This suggests that we aren’t stupid and that the identity of the rapist is not clear.

      I am assuming that there really was a rape, even though there is some ambiguity on that, as the daughter’s affect certainly changes as though she did undergo a traumatic event, as opposed to just lying to her father about meeting a guy.

      Maybe the author has one ending in his mind, but I do think it is intentional that the identity of the rapist is not clear. I think that he wrote the book to be ambiguous without a clear answer and quite likely there is no answer. While frustrating, the ending (like the finale of The Sopranos) is keeping people thinking about and talking about the book.

      Marc certainly Ralph was guilty of something, even if not the rapist. Plus even though there is considerable doubt as to whether Ralph was the actual rapist, his deathbed story raises suspicion that he is covering something up. Is he covering up his own actions, covering for Stanley (if so, why?), or I wonder if he is providing cover for his son (regardless of whether his son really is guilty of anything).

      I also wonder if there is some clue we are missing in the donkey story considering how it came up again at the end. Or maybe it is just a manner in how real life can be. There are not always answers, and things happen which are not part of a tightly plotted murder mystery.

      While dwelling on figuring out the identity of the rapist, it becomes easy to momentarily forget that there is another big crime in the book and the identity of the criminal is out in the open–Marc’s murder of Ralph.

      • I hope that Herman Koch stumbles across your comment one of these days! I think he’d be highly gratified to see that someone had so much to say about his book. I agree totally with all the things you’ve said here! Especially about Marc’s murder of Ralph. We’re all so fixated on who raped the daughter that we forget that Marc planned for Ralph to die!

        It’s such a brilliant book. I’m glad you all came here to work through it! Thanks so much for your wonderfully insightful comments!

  7. I found this website the same way..I was so confused by the ending and wantte to find out what I was missing!!!

  8. Thank heavens I was not the ONLY one confused with the ending. I told my partner, after finishing the book, “I don’t get it; I’m going to have to read the last 10 pages again”, which I did . . . and I STILL don’t get it!

  9. I can only join the legion of people who seem to have been directed to this site using a search engine to see if someone — anyone! — could explain the ending of the book and particularly the reason for the sudden reintroduction of the anecdote about the donkey (and don’t forget the llama, who is also mentioned).

    My wife and I read the book simultaneously (me in English, she in French), and both of us are absolutely flummoxed by the vagueness of the ending. Oddly, none of the “professional” book reviews I have read make this point — some of them comment on the “weakness” of “the final plot twist” but they all seem to be hinting that although the resolution of the riddle is unsatisfying, there is indeed such a resolution. Have the professional reviewers all cottoned on to something that us mere mortals have missed?

    One point to add : one of the professional reviews makes the very cogent point that in medical fact, while the deliberate failure to alert Ralph to the correct diagnosis led to his death, the narrator’s assertion that he actually provoked the death by causing the cancer cells to be introduced further into the “healthy” part of the body is, medically speaking, hogwash. If this is true then we have yet another riddle on our hands — is this the author of the book making a mistake, or proof of still yet another facet of the “unreliability” of the “unreliable narrator”?

    Answers on a postcard, please!

    • “Have the professional reviewers all cottoned on to something that us mere mortals have missed?”

      I wonder if it is a case of the professional reviewers being less willing than us mere mortals to admit not knowing what the end means in terms of who is the rapist. Plus saying there is a plot twist doesn’t mean they know the answer to this key question.

      For the last point, as a physician I knew that the key medical point is hogwash when reading. As I see medical errors in fiction so often, I just went with it. It is a valid criticism that such a key point is based upon a medical falsehood, but I quickly decided it is best to just grant them their premise (as I often do in science fiction) and accept the story as long as they remained consistent with this premise.

      It is certainly possible that this is related to the unreliability of the narrator but I think it is just a medical error on the part of the author and in reading the book we should assume that the narrator really did commit malpractice/murder in this manner. Otherwise too much of the book would not make any sense. It is not only a case of the narrator making this claim, but him reporting being investigated based upon this medical theory. It would be too hard to discuss anything in the book if everything the narrator said is false.

    • I think the point of this book is to prompt discussion and more than any other book I’ve read (or reviewed on this blog) this seems to be that book.

      The donkey thing. I think it’s just meant to show us that Marc is more empathetic to the plight of an animal than he is to other humans. He actually cared what happened to the donkey, and the other animals that were not being treated well at that campground. The people around him, the people that as a physician he should be helping to make healthy, he cares about them a lot less.

      I’m not totally sure that there is a clear cut answer to what the hell happened in the end, but that’s what I liked about it. As Ron says above, the fact that what he did to Ralph is a medical impossibility doesn’t bother me. Chalk it up to artistic licence – in the moment I read it, it seemed plausible and horrible. Like The Dinner, the end is open to interpretation. Depending on you read the clues, the cues and the personalities, you are kind of free to make up your mind. When I first read it and posted this review, I was confident that I had figured out the ending. Reading all of these comments asking about the ending, I’m less sure. I know that when I re-read The Dinner, the ending struck me completely differently than it had the first time. Maybe that will be the case here.

      And I seriously think that this was Koch’s intention. I would love the chance to get to ask him sometime.

      • Great! He actually was at the book store where I bought the book. Not on the day that I bought the book but prior to promoting it.. Wish he would have been there after I read it

  10. I don’t want to say too much about The Dinner as not everyone reading this has read it, but I don’t think the ending was anywhere near as ambiguous. The thing that changed my impression of the book at the end was the realization that the narrator was not the good guy and his descriptions of the other characters should not be trusted.

    • I have now read “The Dinner” (in about two days, after having finished “Summer House”). I agree that the ending is less ambiguous (although I’m still not quite sure what happens to one of the antagonists) and I most definitely agree with your conclusion about the narrator — it is actually quite clear at the end that the person portrayed as a pompous hypocrite is actually the only one who has a shred of honor about him.

      But somehow, after reading Summer House, I was disappointed in The Dinner. Most critics seem to hail The Dinner but find Summer House a let down after reading The Dinner. I wonder if it all depends on which order you read the books in!

      • I also liked Summer House more. It was as if he took the idea of The Dinner (an unreliable narrator who is not a good guy) and went even beyond this in Summer House. There is still an unreliable narrator but in Summer House he is an even worse guy (a murderer) and there is second related but different mystery (the daughter’s rape, assuming she was really raped). On the downside, while I understand what happened in The Dinner, I would prefer that there was a little less mystery as to what happened in Summer House.

      • I read The Dinner first and still really enjoyed Summer House with Swimming Pool but I definitely think that I’m in the minority. I know that my brother read The Dinner first and was blown away by it – he loved it. He liked Summer House with Swimming Pool but it wasn’t nearly as compelling for him as The Dinner.

        The ending of The Dinner is clearer than that of Summer House with Swimming Pool but I still think there are some unanswered questions. When I read it the second time, I had a completely different reaction. The first time I thought ‘of course you would want to protect your child no matter what’ and the second I was horrified at what they were proposing.

        Koch’s work makes us think and discuss these things like nothing else and I love that about his books.

  11. “We need to somehow make Herman Koch give us the answers. I like talking about it but at some point I think we all just want the clear answers!”

    I fear there is no clear answer and that the book was intentionally written to leave the rape a mystery. I think it is like the ending of The Sopranos, which another round of interviews with David Chase this week again showed that there is no answer as to whether Tony Soprano lived or died.

    Of course if Koch does have anything in mind I sure would like to hear what he would have have to day.

    As for The Dinner, I think it is much clearer that the intent was that the narrator was wrong about how he wanted to defend their children and the brother-in-law was the better of the characters, despite how the narrator described him.

    On the topic of unreliable narrators, I read Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan while on the same vacation as when I read The Dinner last summer. There is also a revelation about the narrator which totally changes the interpretation of the story. Plus I read both of these not all that long after reading Gone Girl, in which we are also being deceived.

  12. This might be as close as we are going to get to a response from the author. I had someone ask for book recommendations yesterday and this book came up. leading me to once again do a Google search for ideas on the ending. Someone at Goodreads posted this:

    “I went to the autors reading in Belgium and he explained that it’s supposed to be an open ending, as for he didn’t know how to end it properly. So in a way, it’s all open for your fantasy.”

    I wish I could have heard his actual answer. Was it really that he didn’t know, which sounds like a fault on the part of the author? I wonder if it wasn’t more a matter of thinking that an open ending was better than giving a definite ending. Regardless, this goes along with the idea that there really is not a clear ending in the book.

    • Herman Koch was in Vancouver last week for the Vanouver Writer’s Fest and I couldn’t get tickets to see him! I wish I had – I would have asked him so many things.Knowing what I know about him though, I seriously doubt he didn’t have any idea. I think it’s open ended on purpose because he wanted us to have to work for it and come to our own conclusions.

  13. Pingback: Unapologetic: Dear Mr M | The Paperback Princess

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