Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Dinner by Herman Koch


A delicious souffle to tickle your tastebuds, combining a fresh and piquant mixture of upper-middle class values

and snobberies with brilliant social observation.

A fine attention to detail and underlying psychological reality.

Bright, fresh and tantalising.


Two couples meet for dinner in a posh restaurant in Amsterdam. One brother is a super successful politician. The other is not. There are tensions, but we don’t know why.  The rivalry between the brothers is wonderfully drawn, as is the meaning in minutiae – so perfectly encapsulated by posh restaurants, manners, wine and food.It becomes clear over the course of the dinner that there is a problem – a secret – to do with the couples’ two adored sons –  sons who harbour all the hopes and dreams for their ambitious and competitive parents. The competition and the oppressive air of middle class anxiety surrounding taste, status and how they are perceived is brilliantly drawn.


A characterful and absorbing main course exploring the key themes of brotherly rivalry,

male egos and the obsessions of a particular class in Holland. Increasing dark notes come through, but despite lots of taste and colour,

there are elements that lead to a less solid whole


As the novel progresses, what have the children done and why and what the parents know becomes the focus of the book. However, as absorbing as this is, Koch throws this away for me somewhat by bringing in cod psychologists and fanciful genetic conditions that don’t seem to exist and feel rather added on to represent the obligatory “nature/nurture” argument. This contrasts sharply with the observational reality and fine detail of the book and a gulf starts to open up between the style and world that has been set up and the psychological believability.


A disappointing conclusion to an evening that started off so gastronomically promising.

The desert to this meal feels less substantial than it should be. We maybe don’t want a full school-dinner type bread and butter or rice

pudding affair, but the treatment and resolution aren’t substantial enough for such dark material – leaving a slightly bitter taste in the



the dinnerThe final third of the novel slips away as the thriller plot takes over – but the lack of rootedness and substance that the book brilliantly sets up earlier means the resolution feels more superficial and disappointing after such a promising start. There is little in the way of revelation and it felt to me like the brilliance of the first third is not delivered upon as the book fails to choose between the territories of “We Need to Talk about Kevin”, or a more racy thrillerish genre-novel. In the end I was left with the impression that Koch is a brilliant observer and chronicler of middle-class neurosis. I wish he’d mined that territory further and drawn to a resolution that matched that area. It felt to this reader like the determination to force large thrillerish events onto what earlier felt like a chamber piece, diminished rather than added to the book’s ultimate power.


If you want a readable, well-observed slightly-thrillerish novel with knowing social observation and a sharp exploration of sibling rivalry and ambition – this is the one for you. This book was a bestseller and I can see why – and for most of it I was hooked. But ultimately, for me, it failed to deliver on its early promise by mixing unbelievable made-up elements into a very realistic world- and by the feeling I was left with that its conclusion was more mundanely unpleasant than insightful. I believe that Koch could write something really special if the interrogation of the material could match his brilliant, ascerbic portraits of the well-off ambitious establishment class. That would be a novel I’d very much like to read.

One comment on “The Dinner by Herman Koch

  1. Jackie
    June 28, 2013

    What a terrific method of writing a review and how fitting for the cover and beginning. Really clever and well done!

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This entry was posted on June 28, 2013 by in Uncategorized.



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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