Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, review by Bruce Jacobs
Dutch writer and actor Herman Koch earned almost universal acclaim for The Dinner, a novel that takes place over a long, multi-course meal in an Amsterdam restaurant at which two brothers and their wives proceed to alienate each other, the staff, the other diners and even the reader as they try to manage an incident of unprovoked violence by their sons. Koch's new novel, Summer House with Swimming Pool, is equally rife with dissension and condescension, as an upper-middle-class Dutch family deals with personal tragedy and vengeance after a summer vacation goes amok.
Narrator Marc Schlosser is a successful general medicine physician with a solid core of patients, many of them neurotic, high-strung eccentrics from the arts. In a highly regulated national medical system, Marc provides his often hypochondriac patients with 20 minutes of nonjudgmental listening and easy access to prescription comfort, including a suicide cocktail when the time comes. A misanthropic but well-paid cynic, he puts up with his patients' obesity, addictions and appetites--rationalizing his professional look-the-other-way approach by advising them that "people who can enjoy life last longer than the sourpusses who eat only plants and slurp down organic yogurt." He tells himself that he's really just "a simple family doctor who happens to value quality of life more than a one-hundred-percent healthy body."
When he, his wife, and their two early-teen daughters are invited to the Mediterranean summer rental house of a patient, the well-known actor Ralph Meier, Marc finds himself in a world of hedonism and excess that scars his older daughter and nearly topples his marriage. Fat, vulgar, womanizing Ralph spends the vacation days barbecuing fresh fish, drinking nonstop, ogling Marc's daughters and wife and leading beach swimming expeditions in uninhibited nakedness. In the freewheeling chaos of liquor and sunshine, Marc drunkenly and persistently pursues Ralph's wife while his hormonal young daughters bask in the attention of Ralph's teen sons and Ralph himself. Marc's wife sees the dangers circling around her family and begs him to leave before bacchanalian temptations lead to tragedy--too late, it turns out.
With an almost Nicholson Baker-ish flair for the details of our modern Western world of sex-obsession and fragile families, Koch builds his story from the cynical musings of a successful doctor into an addictive mystery about just what happened at that idyllic vacation villa. His smart-talking characters and deceptive plot make Summer House with Swimming Pool a solid follow-up to The Dinner.
Bruce's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness on Tuesday, May 13.