The Dinner was a summer hit book last year. Or was it the year before? I'm never really good at keeping track of bestsellers and if I end up reading the book, it's usually when the hype has died down. I don't do this on purpose - I'm such a slow reader that I've got several years worth of good reads to catch up on.
What I'm trying to say is this: this review is most completely unnecessary, because everyone has already heard of this book. But if it went under your radar and you like to read twisted novels about the banality of evil, read this. I think this novel is better appreciated if you go blindly into it, so I tried not to read much about it before I finished it. I recommend you do the same, so stop here if you haven't read this, because there will be spoilers. Fast review: I really really liked it.
This was rather unexpected. I had formed a completely different idea of how this would pan out. I knew the bare basics: two couples meet for dinner to discuss a violent bearing their two adolescent children have commited. The events unfold slowly through the courses of said dinner in a very posh restaurant. When Paul, one of the fathers, discovered the video of the two teenagers, Michel and Rick, beating an old man in a train station, I thought that was it. And it was grave enough to warrant a novel, but boy, was I wrong. Out of left field come the true stories at the core of the novel. The violence escalated quickly. It turns out the boys indulge in violence, something that started when they, uh, accidentally-but-not-really set fire to a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM. This is far more terrifying.
I initially liked Claire and Paul, who are presented as a cultivated, liberal middle-class couple. But something was amiss, and I started to find Paul increasingly disturbing. The turning point for me was his description of the short vacation they spent with Paul's brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette. The awful fantasy Paul had of Babette wretched by their French neighbors as in those films he cites (Deliverance and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs) was far more disturbing than I could have imagined. It was soon clear to me that we were dealing with a family of psychos, but not exactly. Evil. Thugs. Broken moral compasses. In that and in its unreliable narrator, it is indeed like Gone Girl, to which it has been compared. I would have really liked to see this theme developed, since we don't get so many unlikeable protagonists in bestsellers. Unfortunately, the author undercut this interesting exploration of the nature of evil by explaining it away with an unnamed genetic disorder, which took gravitas from the novel.
In 2005, three Spanish teenagers did as Michel and Rick do in the novel: they threw trash and subsequently set fire to a homeless woman, asleep in one of those ATM cubicles. Most people were aghast, but you also heard the passing water-cooler comment about the woman not being such a victim after all, because she was homeless: Why was she sleeping in the streets when we have an effective shelter program? Why wasn't she working if she was not that old?
The Dinner is, then, a European novel. An incessant critique to the raging neoliberalism taking over Europe, to a bourgeoisie who is content with the status quo, to racism and violence exploitation, and to our vapid politics and high-end restaurants. It ridiculizes and undermines European conservative beliefs, which I think is why it resonated so much with the public. The author limits himself to presenting the facts, without ever taking sides. There are truly no consequences for the main characters, or we don't get to see them. I think that this, along with its black humor, is at the bottom of the bad critics it has received from the States, but it is what I liked most about it.
It is an interesting and gripping read, but it could have been more effective if it hadn't disposed of some of its intellectualism in favor of better selling qualities.