The fun of reading Dutch author Herman Koch is his constant questioning of normal human behavior. His commentary on etiquette and the trappings of wealth is hilariously biting; it’s like standing next to the cynical party guest who keeps you laughing all night by mocking the pretentious host. And just like that funny guy at the party, Koch can go from companionable to creepy before you realize what changed. He did it in his stateside breakout book, The Dinner, when a simple meal turned twisted, and Summer House with Swimming Pool is no different: We watch as a happy family vacation grows complicated and dark.
This time, our misanthropic narrator is Marc, doctor to the stars. His patients are artists, writers and actors who are co-dependent more than anything else, relying on Marc’s reassurance and attention more than his medical opinion. He spends his time counting the minutes until his patients leave and yawning his way through their performances. He’s not disillusioned by wealth so much as utterly bored by it.
Or is he? One of Marc’s patients is Ralph Meier, a big, hulking actor who seems to get whatever he wants. The good doctor is both repulsed and intrigued by Ralph, and he’s obsessed with learning what makes him tick—to the point of borderline stalking the actor’s family on their summer vacation.
Koch has assembled all the elements for a good summer thriller, but his style is a bit unsettling. Just when you begin to connect with the characters, he zooms wide and you lose focus. It’s fun to peek inside the windows of the rich, but it’s frustrating to be kept outside, and these characters never really let you in. They’re always hiding something, and just like in The Dinner, the real mystery here is the human condition. Summer House with Swimming Pool describes a world where hopelessly damaged people live perfect-looking lives, where all is not as it seems, and where the shadows overtake the sunshine. One thing’s for sure—Koch is not afraid to take us to the dark side.