"The Dinner" and "Defending Jacob" - Two Novels : Same themes

Dutch author, Herman Koch.
Dutch author, Herman Koch. | Source
Newton City Hall, Newton, MS, the setting of the novel, "Defending Jacob."
Newton City Hall, Newton, MS, the setting of the novel, "Defending Jacob."

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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Comments 20 comments

Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I'd like to read both books to see if there is are any cultural considerations that separate the parental angst/guilt/pain of these 'all too common' tragedies. The complexity of the human brain defies easy answers. After the horror that Adam Lanza inflicted in the CT elementary school, I researched Aspergers to find it is often part of the father's genetic makeup. And, which came first, Aspergers, his personality disorder or his reputation as a video gamer fixated on violence? Since he lived with a controlling mother, she may not have been able to stop him, but she could have kept her guns out of his reach rather than encouraging their 'bonding' on the gun range. But, as we have seen in the subsequent absence of any changes in gun control, there are as many thoughts on the subject as there are people. Did reading either of these two novels change anything about the way you perceive the issues, Suzette, or give you any sense of possible resolutions to this huge complicated problem? If so, please tell me which of the two books helped you form any definitive direction or even a hint. As it is, the horror that the media floods us with today is all I can stomach and the truth is so much more frightening than anything I want to read. I, like every parent, could have done better. I hesitate to read the journey these fictional families endured, which I'm sure included the failure of the medical community, many run ins with the law, denial, hoping it was a stage, minimizing, blame and manipulation that rivals torture. I think, though your beautifully written reviews stir my curiosity, I'm afraid either of these novels would keep me awake at night over an issue I have little hope of seeing resolved. Yet, your recommendation is powerful stuff and I may just have to read them anyway!!!

Brilliant reviews in your excellent style of writing, Suzette.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy: I was flummoxed by these two novels. I don't know what the answer is to the questions raised in these two novels. They certainly are fodder for great thought and discussions. I realize, for a parent, these might be difficult novels to read. I understand fully your feelings in that area. I didn't go into detail about the crimes because I don't want to give away the endings. I will say the horrific crimes the teenagers commit are murder. I don't think your daughter went out and murdered anyone when she was a teenager. So, I would not look at you as a deficient parent, Amy, never. I realize there are no perfect parents out there and parents make mistakes in raising their children, but these novels deal with murder - really aberrant behavior for a teenager or anyone of any age. I agree with you in the Newtown, CN murders. Nancy Lanza, in my opinion, is partially responsible for those murders. She had no business introducing guns to a son with a brain disorder like Aspergers. Heavens knows what else he might have had wrong with him. That was just plain irresponsible on her part and bereft of common sense. But, I will say, teenagers are responsible for knowing right from wrong. Psychiatrists and psychologists have drawn from research that by the time a child is seven years old, he/she knows right from wrong. So, teenagers definitely know right from wrong, but when disorders like Aspergers or Autism occur who knows? What is interesting in both these novels, is the parents reactions and behaviors to the murders are questionable. I don't think just genetics can be taken into consideration in why these teenagers murder. I believe their environment is an important variable also. In both novels, the teenage boys come from upper-middle class homes. Is that a variable in why they murder? I don't know. These novels raise more questions than they resolve. Yes, our violent culture in America is also a variable in all this. I find after reading these novels there are no easy answers to the questions they raise. All parents can do is raise their children the best that they can and the teenagers are responsible for their behaviors. I guess that's my final answer in all this. Thank you so much for reading this review and I appreciate your thoughtful input, Amy. It is always most appreciated!


Lesleysherwood 3 years ago

You have introduced these books so well I have to read them. Its such an interesting topic, especially if you are a parent. As a mother I want to protect and defend my son to the ends of the earth, but at what cost?


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Lesleysherwood: I know how you feel. I would be the same way if I had children also. But, both of these books really raise some interesting questions that go straight to our moral decisions we make. Thanks for your visit and I'm glad you enjoyed reading this and that it has inspired your to read the books. Your thoughtful input is most appreciated.


khmazz profile image

khmazz 3 years ago from South Florida

Just because of this hub, these two books have been added to my "to read" list. Wonderful Hub and thanks for sharing your opinion. Voted Up!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

khmazz: Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed reading this and have been inspired to read these books. They are something else. Thanks for the votes and your visit.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Suzette - How fascinating that these two books address similar experiences and themes. You did a terrific job introducing them to us without giving away too much detail. Both of these books will definitely go on my summer reading list. Thanks for a great review. Hope all is well. Sharing. Theresa


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

phdast7: Thank you so much for your comments, Theresa. Yes, these two books are fascinating and really make the reader think and mull over these dilemmas. I just happened to run into these when checking the NYT best seller list on my Kindle. I had not heard of them before and was interested to find they had such similar themes. Not being a parent, it was fascinating for me and I pondered what I would do in these situations and what decisions I would make. I tried not to give away the endings. You must read them and tell me if you were shocked at the endings. I was for sure. Thanks so much for the visit. All is well and I hope the same for you.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Hi Suzette - I just ordered both books through Amazon. I found them used so that was really nice - I have a really hard time paying full price for most things. :) I raised three sons so it will be interesting to see how the books do or do not resonate with me. I will have to work really hard now and get lots of end of year committee reports and all finished so I can indulge in reading when the books come. :)


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Theresa: I can tell by how I know you on HubPages you are a hands on mother that takes interest and knows what her boys are doing. I don't think you are like the parents in these books. That said, I realize parents never know everything their kids are doing, but I think you are smart enough to keep abreast of any problems going on with your boys. That's the feeling I get from knowing you here on HP. Summer is coming and I hope you have more personal time on you hands!


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

suzette - What kind and thoughtful observations. Thank you. I was pretty involved with my boys, but also didn't want to smother them -- it is such a balancing act. We did have some rough patches when they were teenagers, especially my middle son, but they grew up and we got past all that. I won't say they are saints, but they are good men and I am more than content.

Thankfully in another week I will have three weeks all to myself -- and my fantasy list of projects to finish is getting longer and longer. :) I do start teaching again in June, but its only two days a week, which is a wonderful schedule. :) Theresa


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Theresa: Well, enjoy your shortened weeks this summer. It sounds like a great schedule. Just enough not to get bored but plenty of time to yourself. I would like to find a part time job like that at one of the universities near me. Work about two days a week - just one class or two per week. So far, no go, but I will keep looking. Parenting is not easy, I realize, even though I have not been a parent. I believe it is the most difficult job on earth; being responsible for another's life and guiding them to be a substantial, good contributing person to society. I have to hand it to you and all parents. Have a happy summer!


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Hi Suzette - I couldn't wait for summer proper. The books arrived and I just had to read them and I just finished The Dinner. Both books have all the parallel themes that you mentioned - upper class families, an only child, distant father, close mother, "liberal and accepting" parenting style,

the issue of nature versus nurture in relation to a possible genetic basis for the crimes.....however, I reacted to the two books very differently. I am glad you recommended them and I am glad I read them, but I am going to be honest here.

I disliked The Dinner within the first fifty pages. Serge sounded unpleasant, but before long I grew very tired of the spoiled and critical attitude of Paul -- if you dislike someone that intensely, don't spend time with them. It moved slowly, the digressions didn't always seem relevant. And eventually I came to thoroughly dislike and disapprove of Paul and Claire.

I wasn't shocked exactly, but surprised at the cruelty that Claire showed while trying to protect her vicious son. I came away with a bad taste in my mouth for middle and upper class people who will not assume responsibility for their actions and don't teach their children too. I will not be passing the book on -- its going to GoodWill.

Now Defending Jacob is another ting entirely. I loved this book, the characters, the situation, the legal and psychological aspects, the relationships. . . . I loved and relished everything about it. I could hardly put it down. To me it is a much deeper, more complex, more fully realized work of fiction with more believable characters. And even with their faults and the things they chose to overlook, I still found them to be likable and sympathetic characters. They struggled morally and emotionally and I give them credit for that. I could muster no such feelings for Paul and Claire.

It was the ending of Defending Jacob that totally shocked me, and yet it made sense -- it fit with her earlier concerns about whether he might have done it or not. It is an excellent book, I will reread it in the future and I have already decided which two out of about ten friends who read I will share it with.

Very interesting to read the two books side by side. Thanks for the review and the recommendation. Raining here, hope you have sun. Theresa


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 3 years ago from Deep South, USA

Suzette---You provided ample information in your reviews of these two novels to whet my interest, as I am fascinated by the question of "nurture versus nature" affecting behavior.

After reading Theresa's second comment with thorough critiques of both books after reading them, I plan to read DEFENDING JACOB. From her remarks, I am quite certain I would have no sympathy for the parents in THE DINNER and would begrudge any time I spent reading that book. That's good to know beforehand. (Thanks, Theresa.)

I hope you keep reviewing books, Suzette.

Voted Up++

Jaye


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Theresa, I'm glad you read the books and I have enjoyed your response. It is so straight forward and honest. I never said I liked them, I just said they were shocking and interesting because they shared the same themes and I was recommending them because they were shocking and because of the similar themes. I never said they were enjoyable to read; in fact, I find them disturbing to read.

I disagree with "The Dinner" being boring the first 50 pages. I was not bored. But, it is this book that I disliked the characters the most. Serge and his wife are just empty headed shallow people. Paul and Claire I didn't like either. I was sick of Paul and his anger issues and not manning up to the fact that he needed help. Claire I found repulsive and her actions in the end of the novel are revolting. That she condones and encourages her son to do what he did is horrific. She is as bad as her son, and it is from her he probably gets the tendency to do what he did. What I found so chilling about this novel was the fact that it represents some European parents, especially Dutch parents. I find that truly frightening. I found the dinner the two couples have and their discussion to be totally cavalier and revolting. That some Dutch and Europeans are of this persuasion truly concerns me.

I also liked Defending Jacob better than The Dinner, probably because it was about an American family and not a European family. I agree with you, the parents in this novel did struggle with morality and right and wrong, where Paul and Claire did not. I still found Jacob's mother's ( I can't remember her name now) decision at the end of the book sad and desperate. Why not get him help if she felt what happened on the vacation was his fault? I found both books to be shocking, horrible and disturbing with similar themes. Actually, neither book is on my best liked list - more like on my most disturbing list. But, I'm glad I read them and I consider them important to what is going on today in nature vs. nurture. I also, didn't want to give away too much of the books in my review, and I always like to leave it up to the reader as to their reaction to the books. Yours is very decisive.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Jaye: Thank you for your response and I hope you enjoy whichever book you choose to read or both for that matter. I found them both fascinating because of the similarity of themes and because of the similarity of what crimes the boys had committed. I agree with the fact that the parents in The Dinner are revolting, but there are parents out there like that. I find that frightening. Again, I never said I liked either book, but I found the themes disturbing enough that I recommend reading both and then making up your own mind as to what you think. Theresa's response would never make me stop reviewing books. She is entitled to her opinion just like I am. I will continue to review books where my audience likes them or not. Thanks for your input, Jaye as it is greatly appreciated.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

suzette - I would never want you to stop reviewing books and that was certainly not my intention in responding. As a reviewer you were very balanced and careful not to reveal too much, which is as it should be. I just had such intense and visceral reactions to the two sets of parents.

They are both profoundly interesting and disturbing novels which address issues of concern to modern society, just as you said. Funny, I have a hard time remembering Jacob's mother's name as well. Wonder what that is about? :) The dinner and their discussion was cavalier and revolting -- partially why I disliked the book. By stating my reactions so baldly, I did not mean to imply that I was contradicting you or did not trust your judgement. Your review was good -- I guess without thinking about it too much, I just wrote about my immediate feelings. I did not mean to be rude or offensive. Theresa


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 3 years ago from Deep South, USA

Hi, Suzette...My comment that I hope you keep reviewing books was not meant to imply that you might stop because of a comment--only that I enjoy reading good book reviews by thoughtful, insightful reviewers, which your review was and you clearly are. Just want to clarify those points. (I suppose I should have made that distinction clearer in my original comment.)

Jaye


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Theresa: You don't have anything to apologize for. We all have our opinions on books, movies, food etc. I admire your honesty and forthrightness. I just found them so shocking and disturbing I recommended to read them from that standpoint. I can't honestly say I like like the books, they are so different and disturbing from other books in their themes. I found them both equally shocking, but I can understand your liking Defending Jacob more than The Dinner. I'm just glad you read them and discussed your reaction to them with me. This is what makes life interesting to me. The discussion!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Jaye: Thank you for your clarification. I appreciate your comments and I will probably do more book and movie reviews as I enjoy writing them. I appreciate you taking the time to read them. Your visits are most appreciated.

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