Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"The Dinner" by Herman Koch

The Dinner reminds me a lot of Gone Girl in its deliciously unreliable narrator, increasing tension, and building mystery. And though, like Gone Girl, The Dinner gets ever more extreme as the book continues, I didn't find it nearly as outlandish, though the characters aren't much less grotesque.

Perhaps what makes The Dinner all the more affecting is its mundane set-up: Paul and his wife Claire are meeting Paul's brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, for dinner at a fancy restaurant. But, of course, this isn't an ordinary dinner. They are there to talk about their 15-year-old sons and a grainy video that's been on the news recently. The parents recognize their sons in the video, though it seems no one else has yet, and they need to decide what to do.

It becomes clear from the start that Paul is a man with an ax to grind. His brother is running for prime minister of Holland and is expected to win, and Paul resents Serge's celebrity. Though he tries hard to make Serge appear to be a patronizing phony, it's obvious that Paul is the bully, looking for opportunities to put down all of those around him.

Over the course of the novel, Paul reveals his past and his relationships with his son and wife. Not surprisingly, he takes no responsibility for his failures, which instead only fuel his rage at the world. One problem I had with his character echoes a similar issue I had with Gone Girl. At one point, Paul visits a psychologist who informs him that he has some unnamed disorder which makes him act the way he does; according to the psychologist, if prenatal testing had been available when his mother was pregnant, she likely would have aborted him because of the disorder. To me, this is a cheap excuse for Paul's behavior--now he's medically crazy rather than a real person gone wrong.

There's some interesting commentary on parents' relationships with their children and the lengths they'll go to to protect and excuse them, though Paul and Claire's behavior does, in my opinion, go somewhat too far for belief at the end.

Though the characters do become almost cartoonishly evil by the end, I still found The Dinner hard to put down and engrossing. It's a good summer read, especially if you like the style of Gone Girl.

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter

Oh, my, it's been a month! And I actually had to renew Beautiful Ruins three times in order to finish it (my fault, not the book's). It's been a busy four weeks, mostly because my husband and I just moved into our new home. There's lots to be done, though I'm trying to set aside an hour or so each day to read. We've set up our swing on our large deck, which looks out into the woods, and it's quite pleasant to read there in the afternoons.

So, Beautiful Ruins was read during a turbulent time, and I don't know that I gave it my full attention. Nonetheless, I can say it is a sweet and sufficiently engaging book. The novel is made of various forms and comes from a variety of narrators over the course of fifty or so years. It begins in the modern day with Claire, an assistant to an aged film producer, Michael Deane, and it continues in a tiny coastal village in Italy, where a "sick" American actress working on the beleaguered set of the 1963 Cleopatra is brought to hotel owner Pasquale's establishment. The novel also throws in a chapter of a book by Alvis Bender, an American veteran; an unpublished excerpt from Deane's memoir; and a play.

Though there are a lot of pieces, they all come together nicely. However, since Cleopatra and Richard Burton also play significant roles, the book might be more appealing to people familiar (i.e., not me) with the film fiasco and actor.

Pasquale is at the heart of the novel as he struggles to come to terms with his place in the world, and the distance between his aspirations and reality, and responsibility and immaturity. The story between him and Dee (the actress) is the most compelling, particularly next to the story of the rather unsympathetic Pat, Dee's son. Michael Deane is kept perfectly self-absorbed throughout.

The ending is pretty neat and happy for all the characters--lots of life revelations--but I still enjoyed it.