There isn’t really any way to introduce a book like this: like a blind date, it’s just best to get started, and let the evening play out.
With books as with people, first impressions are important. Our narrator, Paul Lohman, begins the story of the evening perfectly. He and his wife Claire, are meeting Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette at an upscale restaurant in Amsterdam to discuss an important family matter. Never mind that Serge was able to get a reservation at the last minute in a place with a six month waiting list. Never mind that this is exactly the kind of pretentious restaurant that Paul hates. Serge is running for Prime Minister, and the smart money knows he’ll win. Serge has spent a lifetime becoming just the kind of important person that his brother Paul hates.
While waiting for his brother to arrive, Paul has had nothing to do but observe the whole scene: with off-hand sarcasm he skewers everyone and everything in sight. The menu, the waitresses, the manager, the other diners; no one is safe from his withering critique of all that is wrong with the whole urban restaurant scene. Whole pages of this novel are devoted to Paul minutely dissecting the choice of entrees on the menu, and then dismissing everything, including the presentation, the silverware, even the size of the plates. Through Paul’s jaundiced eye, the reader is drawn into a clever running dialogue about the yuppie diners. If there’s one thing you can say about Paul, it’s that he’s a brilliant observer of the café society he so despises. This is the Paul that he himself wants us to know. Just like the first few minutes of that blind date, he has charmed us into laughing at his insight and wit.
You would like to follow Paul around Amsterdam, and listen to his glib comments about whatever catches his eye. But this is before we meet Serge, before Paul begins to let the reader in on his own history.
It’s not long before handsome Serge and his stunning wife Babette make their grand entrance. As soon as Serge arrives, Paul turns his wicked attention to his brother, and it isn’t long before you realize that this dinner is going to end badly. Just how badly the evening ends, and what the real reason these four people have met for dinner, delivers much more drama than any normal family meal ever could.
Paul’s description of his politician brother (including a dead-on description of how much and how long he can smile) and his own memories of his life as a high school history teacher, are clues in a soon-to-be- disastrous meal. It slowly becomes apparent that what they order, or how long it takes to arrive at the table, has nothing to do with the real choices these four people have to make. Paul’s internal monologues stop just short of rants, and just about when you wish he’d shut up, he does. What follows is shocking, but the clues have been delivered along with each course. This is another one of those books that would be ruined by too much information: trust me, the way you trust good friends who tell you to eat somewhere you’ve never tried.
This is a slim book, and one very long on original plot. This is one delicious story!