All in the Family


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy

The setup for Herman Koch’s novel, The Dinner, seems simple enough.  Paul and his brother and their wives are meeting for dinner.  Their sons have committed a crime (no

worries—I won’t give any spoilers here) and the parents have come together to try and figure out the best way to handle it.  However, the novel quickly skids off the beaten track and smashes us into uncommon novelistic ground.  The narrator, Paul, is unreliable and unlikable.  His brother, Serge, is self-serving and arrogant.  Serge’s wife, Babette goes from helpless to hysterical.  And Paul’s wife, Claire, is a Machiavellian, par excellence. 


I went through different stages as I was reading this book.  First, I wondered what I might do, if I were put into a similar moral dilemma.  Is it “right” to urge your child to turn himself in and face the consequences of his actions, or is it “right” to protect your child at all costs, even when he is in the wrong?  Then I began to question the parents’ motives.  Are they really trying to protect their sons, or just themselves?  By the end, I was glad I was reading alone, because I’m sure my mouth must have been gaping open in disbelief. 

Paul spends the novel trying to justify and rationalize his actions and those of his son, Michel.  In spite of everything they go through, he tries to convince us that he, Claire and Michel are still one of the “happy” families.  What he is really showing us are the ugly things that families do to and for each other.  Yet in spite of this, it was refreshing to read a novel that departs from the norm in so many ways.  I didn’t like the protagonist; he’s definitely not a hero.  I didn’t side with any of the characters as the action was unfolding.  I was slightly appalled by the ending.  And even so…  I’m so glad I read this and can’t wait until I can get my hands on more books by Koch!

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