Two years ago, I attempted to read Herman Koch’s The Dinner, and was unable to continue due to my horror at the way the villains of the story treated their victim. I won’t say any more because I don’t want to spoil the book, especially because I do know of many who loved it, but when I found out another one of Koch’s books had been translated into English, I was hesitant at best. I purchased it because I was about to embark on a three-hour train ride, and the only book I had with me was Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music, which failed to captivate. In the end, though, I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed this book.
I love a good European summer story [Alys, Always; Disclaimer; Beautiful Ruins; and The Lemon Grove is next on my reading list]. With Summer House, Koch takes that familiar backdrop and cuts it with acerbic prose and unflattering portrayals of his protagonist. It’s not a sweet summer tale of romance set against a beautiful coastal landscape; it’s a story about betrayal, bitterness, and death. Koch’s protagonist, a doctor named Marc who treats and befriends a famous actor, is abhorrent from the beginning – and he knows it. Am I selling it yet? In all honesty, it’s difficult to make this book sound appealing, particularly because it doesn’t market itself as such; it’s not a beautiful or moving reading experience so much as it is a page-turning peek into the writing styles of another world. The way Koch describes and develops his characters is refreshing in how thoroughly ‘un-American’ it is; he makes no attempts to paint one character as the underdog, the hero, or the adorable sidekick, and he doesn’t need-or want-you to come away from the book beaming. He focuses instead on the darker sides of human nature, latent within all of us, but scarcely addressed in contemporary literature without a comic or kind foil to soften its effects. It might not make you smile, it might not make you think, but it will make you gasp, embarrassed not only as the behavior of the characters but also at the fact that, deep down, you understand their actions. Perfect for a plane, train, or automobile. Best enjoyed without food – it includes graphic medical scenes.