The Dinner – Herman Koch

The DinnerI’ve had The Dinner on my Amazon wishlist for a while, but I don’t actually remember why. I remember reading some list a long time ago of book recommendations; it might have been on Slate.com. I put a bunch on my wishlist and promptly forgot about them.

Every once in a while I would go back and look at the list, but I never felt like I had enough of a reason to spend money on them. But we met up with a potential wedding invitation designer at Barnes & Noble on Saturday, and got there pretty early…and so ended up buying a few books each. The Dinner was one of the ones I picked up. I started reading it while waiting for our appointment to start, got home and kept reading it, and then finished it this morning.

It’s been called a European Gone Girl, and while the plots aren’t very similar, the style certainly evokes Gillian Flynn’s work. Two couples, each with a fifteen-year-old son, meet at a restaurant to discuss the heinous crime their sons share responsibility for. The tensions rise as they discuss movies, the weather, anything to avoid the subject that brought them together in the first place. As the meal reaches its end, civility begins to disintegrate as they discuss their children—and how far they are willing to go to protect them.

At under 300 pages, The Dinner is a fast read, although that could also be due to the fact that I couldn’t put it down. That was partly because you don’t actually find out what the boys did until around halfway through (I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s pretty horrifying), so I was sort of rushing to get there. And THAT is because the narrator, the father of one of the boys, definitely drifts into “unreliable narrator” territory, often flashing back to past events, including his memories of being placed on “nonactive” duty (he used to be a teacher) and of his wife, Claire, being in the hospital when his son was young. Paul, the narrator, continues to unravel throughout the night as he learns things about his son—and his wife—that he didn’t know.

To say The Dinner touches on uncomfortable topics is an understatement. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but place myself in the parents’ shoes—what would I do if my child, someone I loved more than life itself, committed a terrible crime? Would I deny it, try to hide it, forget it ever happened? Turn him in and hope for leniency because he was a minor and he owned up to it? Abandon him completely? It’s a situation no parent could ever anticipate. I’m not sure I agree with what they ended up doing, but who am I to say? I don’t have kids. I feel like it was yesterday that I was fifteen myself…how could I possibly know what I would do?

That’s what was great, but also difficult, about reading this book. It challenged a lot of things I took for granted as true 100% of the time: that people should be punished for their crimes; that parents should take responsibility for their children and be able to admit when they’ve done wrong (and that they should be punished accordingly); that victims of a crime are always victims, regardless of their own history. Normally I’m not so good about being gracious about things that challenge my beliefs so thoroughly, but The Dinner definitely won me over for being one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time.

The Dinner is a great book. I’m not sure it’s for everyone, but if you like psychological semi-thrillers, unreliable narrators, and having your beliefs challenged to their very core, give this one a try.

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