Claire and Paul Lohman are a formidable team. They’ve been married for almost 20 years and have a teenage son, but that doesn’t mean that they’re happy. Scratch that, actually–they’re not a happy family, which doesn’t mean that they’re not happy themselves, Paul will say.
They’re not a happy family, maybe, but the two spouses are a formidable duo. They stick together, always. Paul is a teacher taking some time off, because of some liberties he’s taken in branching out of the curriculum and also because he’s sent the school’s principal to the ER. Claire is smarter than Paul, and that comes from the mouth of the man himself. “Claire just happens to be smarter than I am; I can honestly say it took me a while to admit that. During our first years together, I thought she was intelligent, I guess, but intelligent in the usual sense: precisely as intelligent, in fact, as you might expect my wife to be.”
At the beginning of The Dinner, Paul is dreading that dinner with his brother Serge and his wife Babette, that dinner where the four of them will need to hash out a plan. They’ll need to talk, too, about any- and everything. And Paul hates that.
There’s more to The Dinner than simply a dinner–that much is obvious at the beginning of the evening. And it’s as Paul remembers the details to his larger life that the reader learns more about that dinner. At first, it’s all quirky, funny almost. That’s to say that when Paul explains that he loathes fellow Dutchmen (read: his brother) go on vacation on the countryside of France to live like kings for a few weeks, well, it’s funny. Or that when he describes how the waiter uses his pinky to single out ingredients from every meal to explain where it’s from, he does so with so much vitriol that it’s funny–surely a man can’t be bothered THIS much by that, can he? Well yeah, he sure can.
The first part of The Dinner is funny, because the restaurant staff still has only brought out the aperitifs. But soon–not soon enough, Paul would say–dinner is served.
The Dinner is great, because it’s so well written. Herman Koch is a Dutch author, and this book appears to be his best one yet. Certainly, it’s his most successful to date, and it’s easy to see why. It’s well written, taut and rich in suspense. There’s not much action, with the narrative really only being about that one evening at the restaurant between two brothers and their wives. It’s very similar Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections in that sense–nothing happens, but a whole lot unfolds. As the staff brings the aperitifs, the main course and the desserts to the table, Paul reminisces.
And it’s when Paul reminisces that the book becomes alive, bringing the reader on quite the journey. The book is a study on many things. It’s a study in the rage that afflicts us, where a man can be compelled to beat up another one for the simplest of slights. It’s a book about the necessity to keep up the appearance of normal in the face of illness and countless surgeries. Because The Dinner is about life–everything about life always is like that. What gets spoken out loud, or acted upon, always is strictly the tip of the iceberg. But always, there’s an entire body to the iceberg, and it remains hidden. The thoughts, the unspoken dialogue. The memories.
Koch has written a book where he appreciates teenagers for the young people that they are, where he appreciates the severity of what it means to be a teenager. Just because teenagers behave, once, like adults doesn’t mean that they should be then considered adults. Maybe it’s all the opposite–maybe it’s all the more a sign of just how young they are. Claire says it best. “Sometimes I think that’s precisely where we’re mistaken,” she said. “Maybe we don’t take that seriously enough, Babette. How young they are. To the outside world, they’re suddenly adults, because they did something that we, as adults, consider a crime. But I feel that they’ve responded to it more like children. That’s exactly what I was trying to tell Serge. That we don’t have the right to take away their childhood,”–
(And, well, I will stop here because a spoiler comes right up.)
At last, The Dinner is a study in the differences between two brothers and their two families. Claire and Paul are still together after 20 years, because they still love each other and are still strong. Serge and Babette are together, because they loved each other once upon a time but they are strongly growing apart. It’s a study of just how far each set of parents will go for its children when they know well that their children themselves have gone too far. They will still stick with their children, right? But what if they have different opinions on how to do so? What then?
The four protagonists are great. Claire is the smartest of the four, Paul is the man wise enough to understand what he has with his wife, and Babette is the trophy wife who understands that she couldn’t care less about her husband, but that she can’t really leave him either.
But Serge is the real winner, fooling even himself as the village idiot of the group. He’s brother of Paul by blood and politician by choice. Serge aspires to be much more important than he is, but he’s not privy to the fact that the universe has different plans. He’s not even the lovable loser, because at least the lovable loser is pitiful. He’s the one everyone laughs at over dinner, only he’s clueless and is laughing back. But Serge has it all, the life, the wife, and the cash and maybe that’s why he’s laughing too–he’s scum, but he can still make it. He’s a politician, and he’s a shoo-in to become the next Dutch Prime Minister at the elections seven months from that dinner. Until then, he just has that plan to carry on with his brother, over dinner. He’ll be the next prime minister, unless something changes that and he isn’t. Could that dinner be precisely that thing? Remember, Claire and Paul are a formidable team.