|Jan/Feb 2007 Reviews & Interviews|
The Dinner Club.
Bitter Lemon Press. 2006.
Saskia Noort has crafted a delicious melodrama that is part murder mystery but more interestingly a meditation on modern suburban friendships. Focused tightly on the intermingled lives of five thirty-something couples in a village outside Amsterdam, The Dinner Club exposes all the secret longings, complicated coincidences and dangerous temptations that can develop when a group of people end up together more because they think they have a lot in common and not because they actually do. As children we become friends so easily; is that something we can still do as adults or should we all be a little more careful about who we choose to spend our time with? This is the question at the heart of Noort's tightly crafted novel and one that the main character, Karen, discovers is at the source of her family's sudden and complete despair.
The story begins with a tragic fire that throws the group into a tailspin of doubts and recriminations. Noort then flashes back to Karen's arrival in the village with her husband Michel and their daughters. Like many people fleeing urban crime, the Brouwers are hopeful that their new scenic home will be the answer to all the big city's problems. Soon enough they find their Amsterdam friends visiting less and less frequently and Karen in particular feels the absence of the city's sights and sounds quite deeply. She finds herself overjoyed when the mother of one of her daughter's classmates shares a laugh with her one morning and quickly embarks on a new friendship. Hanneke, an interior designer, introduces her to some of her clients and soon Karen is having dinner with her and Angela, Babette and Patricia. The women bond over food and complaints about village life and although the comments are barbed a few times, Karen is delighted to find someone—anyone—who seems like her friends back in the city. The group decides to form a dinner club with their husbands and frequent social occasions follow. It seems perfect but as the story flashes back and forth in time, between the apparent suicide of one of the husbands and guilty departure of one of the wives, it becomes clear that what was going on behind closed doors and in parked cars was as much a part of the club as their boisterous dinners. Everyone lied it seems, and suddenly Karen finds herself on the defensive among the women she once thought were her friends.
On a dime her whole world turns upside down and even Michel does not know her anymore; no one knows who Karen has become or why she changed so much in the first place.
Noort keeps the tension razor sharp, and like the best written mysteries, readers will be guessing until the end just who did what to whom. There is more than one victim here, more than one villain, and more than one reason to question every member of the club. As Karen slowly unravels the threads of the relationships that surround her, she learns that she and her husband have drifted into a sea of suspicion and carelessness; a place where trust and even love seem to be in short supply. It is uncertain that anything will be salvaged from the club's toxic environment by the book's end and solving the mysterious death in the opening pages is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what has really been going on. What's so fascinating though is not who was doing what to whom but why they were doing it; how easily they all found themselves entangled in the kind of subterfuge that none of them really wanted, but all found so much better than the reality of their own lives. Here, for example, is Karen thinking about Michel who commutes to work in Amsterdam while she stays behind to work from home and take care of the children:
He just laughed at my suggestion that he try swapping with me for a day and then seeing if he preferred being at home at the table instead of in the snarl-up. It was no wonder that we women at home abandoned ourselves to fantasies about other men, seeing that our husbands abandoned us daily. And of course these things get out of hand, hungry for attention as we were.
The two of them drift apart at first because of the long hours spent separated but later, as their friendships and interests become more individual, they can not even remember what drew them together. They are no longer Karen and Michel but just Karen; and also Michel. The children and dinner club become what they have in common and that is not enough, and even worse, it is dangerous.
We went on outdoing each other with wisecracks, our laughter becoming even louder and shriller, in an attempt to drown out the strange kind of uneasiness that had taken hold since Evert became ill. It was desperate laughter, full of longing for the intimacy and trust we had once had, and I wondered where it had gone, that intense feeling of closeness. The shine had come off, and I found myself wondering more and more often what our friendship was really based on, whether it really existed and whether it had the same value for all of us. Perhaps in my head I had made more of it than was really there, because I had yearned for it so much.
By the final chapters as Karen finds herself in a race to save her marriage and her life, The Dinner Club becomes far more than just a mystery and instead a very real picture of how friendships can dissolve so mightily, and the tragic mess that can rise up in their wake. This novel has everything: sexual tension, violent crime and social satire at it most biting. Noort has written a daring play not only on how men get along with women, but also on how the two sexes can circle and bite at each other in games of one-upmanship that always leave someone bloodied and broken. This is the writing that Desperate Housewives longs for and a startling look at just how much we will sacrifice in the search for friendship.