I just finished reading The Dinner for the second time.
I think this is one of the first times that I’ve re-read a modern book. I re-read Austen or Bronte all the time, but a modern novel? That doesn’t happen very often.
I first read Herman Koch’s The Dinner last summer. I had heard great things about it; it was hailed as the European Gone Girl. It had recently been translated from the original Dutch and takes place in Amsterdam- there was no way I wasn’t going to read this.
So I read it last summer and then I had no one to talk it over with. Months later, I hosted book club and as the ladies were perusing my bookshelves, The Dinner was taken down and I couldn’t help gushing about how great it was, how messed up and that I had wanted to talk it over with someone ever since. But no one had read it.
It became our next book club book.
I think I enjoyed it more the first time. But only because the first time, in an effort to take in the whole story and all the characters, I was only able to do a surface read. The second time, I was able to understand the characters better, and I didn’t love them.
Paul and Claire Lohman are on their way to have dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. The couples are having dinner (at a fancy Amsterdam restaurant) to discuss their two teenage boys, Michel and Rick. The boys have clearly done something but you don’t know what it is until about half way through the book. Paul arrives at the restaurant ready to pick a fight – he’s annoyed that he has to pay 10 euros for an appertif after the manager makes it sound like it’s on the house. His brother, Serge, waltzes in like he owns the place. He is the favoured candidate in the ongoing Dutch election which further complicates their relationship.
Over dinner the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. Paul remembers the past 11 years by revisiting significant moments: the time his employer suggested he see a psychiatrist, the time his wife was in the hospital for a significant amount of time and Serge and Babette came by to take Michel to stay with them, the time his son came home and told him about the neighbour down the street that invited the boys on the block to come into this home and listen to records.
As the story unravels and you sort of realize what Paul is (as the narrator, Paul refuses to ever go into specifics because that stuff is private and he doesn’t understand why everyone has to make everything so public all the time) and what his son has done, the story shifts to how best to handle it. Paul and his brother have very different ideas of what the next steps should be.
I remember reading it the first time and kind of agreeing with Paul about what the best way to handle his son’s future was. This time I was horrified by it and was hard pressed to find a redeeming character in the whole thing. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it the second time – I did. It just means that this reading experience was really different from the first one and that surprised me.
One thing is for sure – this little novel packs a big punch leaving us with loads to discuss at book club next time.
PS The Dinner was recently released in paperback.