Review of “The Dinner” by Herman Koch

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Fortunately I do not feel the need to like the characters of a book to appreciate a good, well-written story.

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Paul, the narrator of The Dinner, and his wife go off to a meet Serge Lohman and his wife to dine at a very expensive restaurant in Amsterdam, the kind where most people must wait three to six months for a reservation. Serge, however, can get a reservation on short notice, much to Paul’s annoyance, because (1) he knows the owner and (2) he is a candidate for prime minister.

The novel begins as a nicely crafted parody of the little procedural absurdities associated with fine dining, with only the merest hints of dark events to come. Paul is appalled by the prices and is particularly irritated by the small size of the portions and by the obsequiousness of the head waiter, whom he calls “the manager.”

We get to experience the extent of the waiter’s pretentiousness throughout the five-course meal, during which the plot unfolds.

About a third of the way into the book, we learn that Paul is Serge’s brother. After paying obeisance to Anna Karenina’s “happy families” trope, the author reveals that both Lohman families have some significant concerns about their teenage sons. At this point, I must stop to avoid spoilers. However, Paul tries mightily to preserve his “happy family.” At the end, we may be sure that if his family is happy, it belies Tolstoy’s adage that all happy families are happy in the same way, because both of these families take “dysfunctional” to a whole new dimension.

Evaluation: Paul is an observant and opinionated narrator. Koch only gradually lets us discover the depth of Paul’s character through Paul’s own words. And that character turns out to be quite a bit more complex than it appears in the first few chapters. The book is short, tautly written, ironic, innovative, surprising, and very, very dark. Sam Garrett’s translation is so idiomatically accurate that it appears to have been composed in English. I highly recommend it for fans of plots that are dark and twisted with rather heinous protagonists.

Rating: 4/5

originally published in the Netherlands in 2009; published in English translation by Hogarth, a trademark of the Random House Group Limited, 2012; now a Hogarth paperback which includes a reading group guide for book clubs, a Q&A with the author, and an essay.

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10 Responses to Review of “The Dinner” by Herman Koch

  1. sandynawrot says:

    I really enjoyed this one, not only for the sarcastic commentary on the upper middle class and the pretentiousness of “fine dining”, but of Paul’s narration and his hidden issues. He starts out seeming so normal, but as time passes the cracks start to show. I was constantly shaking my head and saying “WHAT DID HE JUST SAY?”. He just slips this stuff in there. This was great stuff.

  2. Like Jim, I disliked the characters — all of them, but found the audio book addictive.

  3. I loved the dark humor of this one, especially in the beginning. Even though I found the characters to be detestable, there was some honest social commentary going on that I found to be pretty great.

  4. Jim’s first sentence says it all! I really liked this book, too.

  5. Charlie says:

    I’ve read quite a few reviews of this, but none yet that have written about the premise in so much detail. It sounds quite fun along with all the dysfunction.

  6. Ti says:

    I gave up on The Dinner at 50% in. I just did not care for it at all.

  7. Athira says:

    I loved this one a lot! It was funny in a very dark sense, and very intense. Halfway it began to look like some of the characters would do anything to get what they want.

  8. stacybuckeye says:

    I brought audio home but my husband only made it through 2 cds before moving on to something else. I’m looking forward to the dark side when I finally get to it 🙂

  9. Beth F says:

    I guess I’m the only one who hasn’t read this! I own a copy…. does that count?

  10. Not my kinda read, but this was a great review!

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