The Dinner Club
First published in: 2004
This edition: 2010 (movie tie-in)
Genre: crime, thriller
Cover design by Marry van Baar; cover photo/illustration by Sara Simpson & Richard Burridge
On a bit of a whim, I walked into the local bookstore a short while ago and walked out with a newly purchased Dutch book in my handbag. Not really familiar with Dutch literature because it's generally just not my forte, I picked a book wich I'd had heard about due to its recently being made into a film. Saskia Noort's THE DINNER CLUB went home with me that day.
Karen's fast asleep in her suburban bed when a phonecall in the middle of the night awakens her and her husband Michel with the dreadful news that one of their friends has died; a roaring fire burned down Evert's house, with him still in it. Thankfully his wife Babette and their two boys made it out alive. Their friends (a group of couples which includes Karen and Michel, also known as The Dinner Club) are devastated by Evert's apparent suicide.
…or are they really?
As the days of mourning pass by, Karen begins to sense a darkness lurking beneath the facade put on by seemingly happy couples who drink wine and dine together (and more). And when another member of the Dinner Club takes a tumble off a balcony, Karen can no longer ignore her gut feeling that Evert's death may not have been self-inflicted at all.
What I like about THE DINNER CLUB, and this is perhaps sentimental, is how recognisably Dutch it is. Reading books allows me to go to faraway places, anywhere my imagination allows me to go; I can make wonderful escapes to places on the other end of the world, or to different worlds entirely.
But I must say that in THE DINNER CLUB, it is refreshing to be closer to home. For example, Noort's characters take the bicycle back home regularly, and there's a familiarity which I find somewhat comforting. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I've been wanting to read Dutch novels, apart from the wish to familiarize myself with Lowlands Lit somewhat.
Apart from being recognizably Dutch, though, the book's also recognizably Western-Dutch – set around Amsterdam's ex-urbs. Karen and other characters – yuppies, all of them – noticably look down on being outside of The City (yet they crave the prestige of their villas). Karen for instance worries about being a "rural tart" now that she no longer lives in Amsterdam itself. Eh. Karen is heavily influenced by a bunch of arrogant, unlikable alcoholics who think they are too good for everyone else.
At times, THE DINNER CLUB is like Desperate Housewives without the humor but with a lot more anguish. Because Noort does set that grim mood right from the start, so the reader senses something's amiss, but it's subtle at first. THE DINNER CLUB only gets darker around page 100. Having a naive narrator like Karen only emphasizes the grim atmosphere, and I think this combination is quite strong. But it's only good that Karen at least is this naive. Save for the "rural tart" remark, she is at least likable, whereas the rest of The (Remaining) Dinner Club are just horrible people.
What's interesting though is the effect of this group of people becoming almost one uniform secretive character. Apart from Karen, The Dinner Club as a whole is the most developed character in the entire book. Individually, there isn't much to be said about them. The Dinner Club is an entity in itself: one creature not to be trusted. The Dinner Club is selfish, backstabbing, materialistic and knows no loyalty.
Karen begins to see this too, and becomes very distrustful of The Dinner Club generally, and that effect is transferred onto the reader. Noort accomplishes this sense of (mild) paranoia very well; the book fits well into the thriller genre.
Noort's mystery plot in general is okay; I could absolutely sense the outcome, but I felt invested enough to find out whether my suspicions were true and in what way. The ending is perhaps rushed, a bit too action-packed suddenly for a generally more subdued thriller, but the plot is satisfactory.
Getting back to the Desperate Housewives comparison, THE DINNER CLUB does focus on intrigue regarding Evert's death, but there are a lot secret affairs and adultery going on. While I wondered at first whether the sex and desire scenes were gratuitous, later on I realized that they did have relevance to the general plot. Nonetheless, I got bored with Karen going on and on about how much she wants to be with this guy who's not her husband. If I feel like reading an "ohhh does he like me too?!" type diary, I'll just pop open one of my own from when I was thirteen years old. Those good old days.
While I breezed through this thriller, and find it entertaining generally, it's not going to be likely that I'll read many more books by Saskia Noort.
She can spin together a decent plot, but it's her writing style that just isn't grabbing me enough. Compared to other books in the genre (THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt or the MILLENNIUM trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson), the simplistic prose fails to really stimulate and challenge the reader.
I point this out, because the publisher makes such a big fuss about THE DINNER CLUB being a "literary thriller". I don't mean to sound like a snob, but as someone completely unfamiliar with Saskia Noort's work, labeling THE DINNER CLUB as "literary" made me expect it to be more like those books by Tartt and Larsson I've just referred to. I might even say it's misleading. THE DINNER CLUB absolutely falls short when you put it next to a successful literary thriller such as THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
Noort's style and expression are hardly original enough to truly stand out, let alone the subject and how it was handled (focusing so much on affairs). I enjoy thrillers and mysteries (whether it's books by Kathy Reichs or Stephen King), but I don't enjoy them when they're made out to be something they're not.
All in all, THE DINNER CLUB's a perfectly fine thriller for a day at the beach, but it's nothing to write home about.
– Dark atmosphere, well done
– Narrator Karen's naivite works well with this
– Interesting how The Dinner Club is almost like an entity in itself, a character
– Thriller plots is fine, reads away easily
– Too much of the book focuses on affairs, cheating. Karen nags on about this too. Tiring.
– A truckload of unsympathetic, spoiled characters, save Karen
– "Rural twat"
– Labeled a "literary thriller"; I don't agree with that pretty label as much. It's "just" a thriller.
– Writing style simplistic, not very stimulating, not challenging.