Noort, Saskia - 'The Dinner Club' (translated by Paul Vincent)
In a commuter village near Amsterdam, upwardly mobile couples have moved in to live the suburban dream - large houses, ostentatious wealth, room to move, safe streets for the children to play in, a village atmosphere. In reality husbands leave early in the morning, the community is closed and unwelcoming to newcomers, wives feel isolated and the beautiful homes aren't quite enough. Karen and Marcel were inner-city dwellers, both working on their own creative careers and a very close couple. They thought they had the suburban dream but the reality is that Marcel is spending hours away from home and Karen is increasingly lonely and isolated. Searching for something, Karen finally forms a friendship with 4 other women, they meet regularly in the village, and with their husbands in tow, form "the Dinner Club".
The book starts off when Karen (who narrates the story) and Marcel are woken by the news that there is a house on fire. Evert dies in that fire, but his wife and their two sons luckily escape. All the members of the Dinner Club are devastated and distressed and they rally close to support her in anyway they can. Tensions in the group are soon simmering away and the fire triggers a chain of devastating events. What Karen had thought was a close and supportive group of friends, turns out to have a lot more going on just below the surface than she ever realised. When another member of the Dinner Club falls from a hotel balcony, Karen quickly finds herself more and more on the outer of the group, and finally seeing the real truth behind the genteel suburban facade.
On the face of it, the book is about 5 women and then their husbands - depending on your perception they could be bitchy and very unpleasant; caring and supportive; self involved and mindless; interested in each other; using each other to validate their own beliefs and behaviour; naive and foolish; sleazy and gross; sexy and attractive; claustrophobic and controlling; carefree and happy, creepy and disturbing. There's always something slightly off about this group - although Karen initially sees them only as kind and caring friends.
Reading THE DINNER CLUB, I initially wondered what the fuss was all about. It was a very quick read but surprisingly engaging despite a natural inclination to dislike these sorts of women intensely. But this book has sold record numbers of copies in its homeland and there must be a reason for that. I suspect that ultimately there are a number of different ways in which this book could be read and understood. On one level it's simply a book about a group of friends that fall apart because of their contributory behaviour, a sort of chick-lit mystery narrative. On another level it's a book about perception - what one person sees (or prefers to see) can be very different from what is actually happening or even what another person is seeing in the same events. At another level it's possible that the book could be read as an analogy of the destruction of a society - how the power base of relationships can be used to achieve an outcome, or how the manipulated can become the manipulator. Certainly, by the stage that the truth is revealed and the perpetrator exposed, the book is a lot less about the mystery and a lot more about the power plays.
Ultimately, I suspect that THE DINNER CLUB is going to be one of those books that people will either like or loathe. It's definitely one to think about, and for that I'm going to come down on the like side.
Karen Chisholm, Australia