"The Dinner" and "Defending Jacob" - Two Novels : Same themes
I have recently read two of the most shocking novels currently on the New York Times Bestseller list that have sent chills up my spine and produced goosebumps on my arms. No, these are not Stephen King novels or horror stories at all .These are fiction psychological thrillers.
They are contemporary family stories that take a close and frightening look at teenagers today and a closer look at how they are parented and their genetic make-up. Both novels deal with teenagers that have committed horrific crimes and how their parents react and try to protect them from authorities and and the final outcome of prison.
The Dinner, by Dutch author Herman Koch, is a look at two married Dutch couples, living in the Netherlands, with teenage sons, who meet for dinner at a restaurant over a period of a couple hours. We see them interact with one another during the dinner and then they discuss what their teenage sons have done and how they will deal with it. The outcome is shocking, to say the least. The entire novel takes place in just several hours, with flashbacks remembered to fill in the necessary background information needed.
Defending Jacob, by American author William Landay, is a look at a typical American family, but told from the perspective of the father as a witness testifying in a grand jury hearing. Flashbacks are used here also to fill in the necessary background information needed. As the father testifies the reader thinks he is testifying about one incident, but by the end of the novel the reader discovers he is testifying about another incident all together. The outcome is chilling to say the least. This novel also takes place in just one day as the father testifies at the grand jury hearing.
What is interesting about both of these novels are the same themes that run through both of them. And the themes are disturbing because the reader clearly can see both sides of the issues. The moral dilemmas and decisions made could be made by any parent of a teenager today. The major themes are:
How much are parents responsible for how their children turn out?
How responsible are parents for the crimes their teenagers commit?
How responsible are genetics in determining how a child behaves, turns out, or for the crimes they commit?
How far should parents go to protect their children? How far would you go to protect your child?
How far would you go to protect and conserve your 'happy family'?
Both of the boys in these novels are teenagers, approximately fifteen years old, give or take a few months. In these novels, both the parents take a hard look back to specific incidents when the boys were young and how they parented those boys during those specific incidents. The parents made mistakes and are those parental mistakes the cause of the horrific crimes the boys have committed today?
The parents also take a serious look at the crimes the boys have committed and question whether the law and court systems will consider the boys as children or adults. Although these boys have committed horrific crimes should they be treated as juveniles or adults? And as a society, what is our responsibility in deciding to try these boys as children or adults?
When are these boys responsible for knowing right from wrong and should issues like raging hormones be taken into consideration? Recent brain research, which I have read as a teacher, has taught me that a child's brain is not completely formed until the age of twenty-five. Therefore, how responsible is teenager, not behaving with a completely formed brain yet, for the actions, behavior or crimes he commits?
What is interesting is that these boys do not come from the ghetto where abuse and violence is a way of life. No, these boys come from upper-middle class families whose fathers are prominent people in the community; one a Dutch politician running for prime minister of the Netherlands, one a history teacher, and the other an assistant district attorney of his city. These boys have grown up with all the advantages. The question is, with all the advantages, where and why did these boys go wrong?
Each novel takes a close look at the fathers of the boys and their genetic, behavorial and work backgrounds. The fathers in these two novels are similar in their make-up and at times in denial about their sons behavior. Both fathers are naive in their parenting skills and how it ultimately affects the boys. Both the fathers have genetic backgrounds that are questionable and could affect their sons' genetic make-up. The question is are the genetics the boys have inherited responsible for these horrific crimes?
The characters of the sons in both novels are moody, distant and detached from their fathers. They are close to their mothers. Is this situation also responsible for how the boys behave and turn out? Or, does this sound like the typical teenage boy?
The characters of the mothers are very different women in the two novels and have very different mores and moral convictions. Both make questionable decisions that affect their sons' futures. Both mothers take decisive action at the end of the novels that sent chills up my spine. Further crimes are committed. Do the ends justify the means?
With the mass murders that recently occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CN, are we unwittingly parenting or by genetics producing children capable of horrific crimes? Is the same genetic make-up that the fathers have, who do not commit crimes, but that the children inherit and do commit the crimes responsible for what happens? Why does the genetic make-up in the father produce an upstanding man in the community, but in the teenager, one that commits horrific crimes?
And. how do we identify these children and parents before hand to prevent such crimes? Neither of these boys was in therapy prior to the crimes they committed nor ever identified by anyone as unstable or a problem. All sets of parents thought they had typical teenagers, well behaved boys who were not acting out, not causing problems in school, and were not juvenile delinquents in the neighborhood.
The parents in both novels are upstanding adults in their communities, with important jobs and are thought of as models in raising their children. Their family unit is considered a model of the typical 'happy family' in the community. One mother even was a stay at home mom. How does it all go wrong?
At the beginning of the novel, The Dinner, the main character of the father starts out in
Chapter 2 by quoting the first line of the novel, Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy: " Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And happy families are dissected in both novels also. Where these really happy families or was it all just an illusion? Both the main characters of the fathers in these novels wanted the 'happy family' preserved. By the end of these two novels, one happy family is completely shattered and in the other one happy family is shattered but one happy family survives. But, for how long will the 'happy family' stay happy?
Do such things as 'happy families' really, truly exist, or are they just illusions?
Which novel ending is the most shocking or chilling for you?
I highly recommend reading both or one of these novels. Either one will shock and awe you.
Copyright (c) Suzannah Wolf Walker 2013 all rights reserved
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