While this was a well-written novel, I don’t think I would ever actually recommend it to anyone. The characters were absolutely despicable and didn’t have any redeeming qualities. While I know that is a complaint leveled against Gone Girl as well, I actually enjoyed Gone Girl and figuring out its twists – in other words, it had something other than the characters going for it. This book on the other hand didn’t have anything in it other than the characters whose actions just made me feel slightly grimy for reading about them. For me, it’s a novel that I would love to discuss but I don’t actually want to put anyone through reading it to make that discussion possible.
I’d heard some buzz about this book on a couple of book-related blogs, and then my dad came home from a business trip gushing over it and told me he’d read the whole thing on a plane ride. I immediately got it at the library and finished it within a few hours–it’s that good.
The narrator of The Dinner is Paul, a seemingly typical middle-class man out to dinner with his wealthy brother (a rising star in the Netherlands’ political scene), and their respective wives. Their sons are connected by a dark and violent secret, one that brings the two couples together for dinner: the goal of the evening is to discuss what happened and to decide what to do. Paul peels back the layers of deception and denial surrounding the situation over the course of the evening, . Cleverly, the action is broken up according to course/phase of the meal, starting with the aperitif, ending with the tip. Of course, flashbacks and inner monologue are used extensively to flesh out the real-time action.
The Other Typist is a fascinating new novel that fans of The Great Gatsby, Gone Girl and The Dinner will want to read. The action takes place in 1925 New York, in a Lower East Side precinct where Rose Baker works as a typist. She and several other women have this new kind of work, taking confessions in shorthand and then transcribing them for the records. Rose is the fastest typist and a straight-laced, no-nonsense kind of girl in her early 20s. Having grown up in an orphanage, Rose has no family or friends to speak of and spends a lot of time in her own head. She greatly admires the old-fashioned, paternalistic sergeant whom she works alongside and places him on a pedestal. She is not overly friendly or familiar with her fellow typists and is especially cold toward the young lieutenant detective, who frequently tries to engage Rose in light conversation. Her life changes dramatically once the new typist arrives. Odalie stands out for her new fashion and fine jewelry, and later for her fashionably bobbed hair. She is a self-possessed, modern woman who is also blessed with beauty and charisma. She seems to mesmerize everyone around her. Rose is initially wary (and judgmental) of her, but they become friends and eventually roommates. Odalie introduces Rose to the modern world but something seems amiss. How does Odalie afford her apartment, clothes and decadent lifestyle? What is the truth about her past?
Rose serves as narrator and the question you ask throughout the narrative is do you trust her? Rose reminds me of the narrator in The Dinner. They both are narcissistic, condescending to those around them (who never seem to measure up to their standards), proudly holding ideas that are no longer popular, not seeing how they appear to others, assigning selfish and hostile motives to others. I found myself constantly wondering whether to believe her assessments of people and situations, whether any feelings of sympathy were misplaced. Is she mentally unstable? Is she an innocent victim of others who take advantage of her naivety? As the story unfolds, we see that Rose is telling her story in retrospect, as part of a therapy for her doctor, but where she is and why she is there is a mystery until the end.
First time author Rindell does a wonderful job of setting her story in historical context. She provides details of crime in 1920s — bootlegging, murder, the growing need for professionals to handle it, and the possibilities for corruption in the system. And there are plenty of details showing a changing society — young women becoming more independent but still vulnerable in so many ways, new fashions and opportunities to spend wealth. The Other Typist is an engrossing tale with a terrific ending. A good choice for those who are drawn to psychological thrillers.
Read The Dinner. I cannot think of a way to discuss this book without giving anything away. I have already begun pleading with my reader friends to get a copy so we can discuss because I so desperately want to talk to someone about it. I read the whole thing in one sitting and it was gripping.
Basically, the book takes place over the course of one dinner, with some flashbacks included. Two couples meet, needing to discuss something about your children. The way the book unfolds, you learn key pieces of information slowly. It’s told from the perspective of one narrator, so you only learn the key information as it becomes necessary to his thought process.
It’s a true psychological thriller (a la Gone Girl). There are no random surprises, or surprise events thrown in just for the purpose of excitement. Every twist and turn that you experience over the course of the dinner is surprising, yet makes sense with the characters, and feels completely earned.
The Dinner, as the title would suggest, takes place over the course of a meal between two brothers and their wives at a chic Dutch restaurant. The narrator Paul is as unreliable as narrators come — a fact that comes out slowly over the course of the book. Paul has a wife, a teenage son…and some disturbing rage issues. Serge, his brother, is set to become the next Prime Minister, though he’s shown to be (from his brother’s pov) t a boorish oaf. Serge and his wife also have two teenage sons (one adopted). It is these sons, who have gotten themselves into some serious trouble, that the two couples are dining together to discuss.
First, the novel’s strengths. The pacing is tight and the novel is suspenseful, at least through the first 2/3’s of the story as we get deeper into Paul’s mind regarding the current events as well as his past breakdowns that shed light on the present. It’s a quick read and I did feel compelled to keep going, to find out just what happens to this family.
But the weaknesses. I love a good unreliable narrator and Paul is just that. This novel is being compared to the recent Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and the comparison is valid. But like that book, there is not one character in The Dinner that is likable. In fact, as more is revealed, I found all of the characters despicable. As the horrific nature of just what those teenage boys have been doing (think Clockwork Orange) is revealed, my ability to empathize with any of the characters became obsolete. You have to suspend some serious disbelief to buy in to the actions and reactions of their parents as they discover what atrocities their sons are committing.
Every person in the novel comes off as a sociopath and it is clear that the apples don’t fall far from the trees.
The Dinner, by Herman Koch, is nominally about a pair of couples meeting for a fancy dinner. The men of the couples are brothers whose lives have taken different paths. One is a politician. The other is a teacher. The two are not estranged, exactly, but there is a very specific reason they are meeting for dinner on this particular night. A horrific event involving both their sons has come to light, and they must figure out how to address it. One favors shining a bright light on the incident. The other is not so sure. One of the wives, unbeknownst to either man, has already taken action. The discoveries keep coming, from the details of the inciting incident to the dark conclusion.
In the vein of Gone Girl and The Dinner, we have yet another novel with a narrator whose reliability is questionable. In Schroder, it’s not so much that the narrator is knowingly deceptive to the reader. It’s that most of the narrator’s life has been a lie, and as a result, the reader might be dubious about his reliability in explaining himself and the accusations against him. Erik’s is the only point of view presented here and while it might be tempting to peg him as a selfish, thoughtless scoundrel, the letter that he writes to his wife reveals a more complex, flawed person.
The conceit is that Erik Kennedy is writing to his estranged wife to explain himself. He has kidnapped their daughter and been exposed as a fraud. He is not a Kennedy at all but a German emigre named Erik Schroder who fled East Berlin with his father in his childhood and then moved to Boston. Young Erik, in applying to summer camp, created a new persona for himself and then completely assimilated it. Things unravel after Erik marries and his marriage falls apart for reasons that he does not understand.
Erik is a translator/scholar whose personal research deals with silences. This makes perfect sense for someone who comes from life under an authoritarian regime and who then must hide his personal truth in order to maintain his preferred fictional life. Erik has no strong sense of self though, no context to share with others such as his wife and child. His desire to assimilate makes Erik too willing to change his identity. He writes that when he met his wife and fell in love, “How quickly I dropped all other commitments, all other friendships, clubs, and interests.” He also eventually put aside his research to work in real estate for his father-in-law.
Most of the narrative follows the week that Erik and daughter Meadow are on the run and the things they did — driving to upstate New York, swimming, eating junk food, taking up with another drifter named April. Erik seems to be slowly working toward his past and is perhaps going to share it with his 6-year-old daughter when present day reality starts to catch up to the pair. Erik seems to understand that he will eventually get caught, but he doesn’t understand what the ultimate repercussions will be. “Maybe this was just the imprinting of my childhood’s apparat, but it seemed to me that if you scratched anybody deep enough, you’d reveal some criminality…. And so I had believed — right up to the moment when I saw myself on TV — that I had not ‘kidnapped’ Meadow but that I was merely very, very late to return her from an agreed-upon visit.”
Erik comes across as a sympathetic and exasperating character. He doesn’t make his wife out to be a bad guy and clearly deeply loves both her and Meadow. He simply doesn’t understand why things have turned out so badly, why his perfect life is falling apart. He doesn’t understand his own role in it but sees that he is losing them all. Gaige mixes revelations about Erik’s past in with the present-day story, which makes Erik’s story sadder but certainly not excusable. All in all, an interesting story about memory, identity and sins of omission.