Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #55: The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

This was my first encounter with Berg, and I was deeply affected by both her writing and her choice of theme. This is the story of an apparently ordinary family with deeply-hidden secrets and rifts that have been papered over, but not without terrible cost. And whether or not there was physical or emotional abuse in your family, you will read this and be touched deeply, knowing that none of us can escape unscathed from the tragedies of those around us.

Happily-married Laura and her family are planning their regular annual family reunion at her parents’ home, when she gets a call from her younger sister Caroline asking for a private meeting with Laura and brother Steven during the course of the family visit. Laura reluctantly agrees, fearing that the perpetually depressed and socially awkward Caroline will put a damper on the gathering. Our narrator is Laura, and through her memories, we get glimpses of her parents’ marriage and of her relationship with her siblings that fill in the picture of something “not quite right.” Laura’s mother was a stunning model who lived by her looks and the magnetic effect those looks had on people, including her own family. She is emotionally cold, but her husband is besotted with her. Nonetheless, Laura feels she had a happy and normal childhood, as does brother Steven. Caroline was the “difficult” child, spending her earlier years idolizing her mother and alienating her siblings, and her later years despising her mother and fighting a downhill battle with depression and self-doubt. Making it worse is that Caroline is now in the throes of a divorce, as well.

It is not until the siblings have gathered that Caroline describes terrible scenes of both emotional and physical abuse by her mother, which Laura and Steven at first deny outright and then slowly come to recognize as truth. And then their father is killed by a sudden stroke in the course of the family reunion, forcing Laura in particular to have to grapple with all of their roles in the revealed family tragedy of which Caroline was the victim, including that of her beloved father who covered up his wife’s behavior for years. Berg uses a particularly effective technique of interspersing her chapters with musings by Laura over old family photos, in which Caroline’s isolation from the rest of her family is suddenly all too visible.

What I found especially poignant is that adult Laura, until now wrapped in a middle-aged cocoon of marital and maternal contentment, is now faced not only with Caroline’s painful revelations and the fact of her lifelong silent suffering, but also the uncomfortable truths about Laura’s own responsibility in the family drama. Laura’s discomfort, her anger, her guilt, and her yearning to return to the familiar cocoon are feelingly and authentically portrayed. The ultimate confrontation between Caroline and her mother—when it comes—is both subtle and healing, and left this reader, at least, in grateful tears.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #44: The Dinner by Herman Koch

This novel, a bestseller in Europe apparently, left me feeling upset, depressed, even slightly nauseated by the characters and the plot of this “simple little story” which is anything but. I’m not sure whether Koch has done us a service or disservice by writing this book, but I guess that it all depends on what the reader takes away from it.

The Dinner is centered around two Dutch couples—two brothers and their wives—meeting at an upscale restaurant to discuss something disturbing regarding their children. We are given tiny little clues all along the way but you need to get more than halfway through the book before you find out what has happened. A teenaged son from each couple have committed a horrific “Clockwork Orange” style attack on a homeless person, and seem to have gotten away with the act. The indistinct video of the incident that is picked up by a security camera and shown on the national news reveals the perpetrators—to their parents, at least—as their sons, and the couple are meeting to decide what to do.

Very early on, the reader sides with Paul and Claire, who are clearly a loving and happy couple, while the other couple Serge and Babette come into the restaurant after a huge fight. Babette’s eyes are red and swollen, while Paul’s brother Serge is embarrassed and unsympathetic. We learn that Serge is a prominent politician whose self-indulgent appetites and bevy of sycophants disgusts Paul, and during the first portion of The Dinner, the reader can easily sympathize with Paul’s viewpoint, especially since it is Paul who is narrating the story. However, as we learn what the couples are there to discuss, we discover that Paul and his wife are already decided to protect their son at any cost, while Serge has come to announce a plan to retire his candidacy for prime minister while naming the boys as the perpetrators as a way to bring it out into the open and help them deal with the consequences of what they have done. Babette appeals to Paul and Claire to change Serge’s mind, but Serge is adamant.

As the tensions build, we get to follow Paul’s increasingly disjointed sojourn down the rabbit hole of his own mental illness. We learn of Paul’s own tendency toward violent outbreaks of psychosis, and his momentary concern that this may have surfaced in his son, but we also learn that it was Paul who nurtured increasingly scary antisocial tendencies, in the name of “telling it like it is,” from his son’s earliest years. We begin to wonder just what messages Claire is sending Paul with her enigmatic smiles across the dinner table. We experience a brief encounter with Paul and Claire’s sociopathic son outside the restaurant, and see firsthand how his parents have created the nightmare they are now living.

Suddenly, our sympathies are with Serge who, whatever his flaws and weaknesses, is trying to do the right thing, and the balance of the story has suddenly shifted under us. The rapid escalation of the plot into an unimagined and unimaginable climax is both shocking and yet, unhappily, so absurd as to leave this reader, at least, shaking her head in disbelief. Whether Koch is offering up a commentary on mental illness, parenting failure, violence and moral ambivalence in contemporary society, or all of the above, I leave those of you with stronger stomachs than my own to decide.