Herman Koch’s mesmerizing and disturbing novel starts out slowly, as two couples meet for dinner at a pricey, somewhat snobbish restaurant in Amsterdam. The two men are brothers: Serge, in the midst of a campaign to become the prime minister of the Netherlands, and Paul, a high school teacher. Paul and his wife Claire arrive first, as usual, for as Paul well knows, Serge “never arrived on time anywhere,” preferring to make a grand entrance.
Paul’s aversion to this whole evening planned by Serge and his wife Babette escalates with the arrival of each skimpy yet ridiculously overpriced course. From the “Greek olives from the Peloponnese, lightly dressed in first-pressing, extra-virgin olive oil from Sardinia,” to the tiny 19-euro appetizer lost in the “vast emptiness” of Claire’s plate, to the miniscule portions of guinea fowl accompanied by a mere shred of lettuce, Paul becomes increasingly fascinated with the “yawning chasm between the dish itself and the price you have to pay for it.”
At this point, the reader assumes that The Dinner will remain what it seems on the surface to be—a subtle, yet piercing, skewering of the haughty, conceited, upper-class brother by his intellectually superior, middle-class sibling. But as the main courses arrive, the reason for the arranged dinner becomes clear: The four of them must deal with the shocking actions taken by their 15-year-old sons against a homeless person. The reader is drawn into their dispute, forced to think about what he or she would do in a similar situation. How hard is it to admit our children’s failings—and how far are we willing to go to protect them?
Koch’s fast-paced, addictive novel raises these questions and more. Readers will be able to identify with the faults and fears of each of his perceptively drawn characters. Already a bestseller in Europe, The Dinner is sure to find an enthusiastic American readership as well.