Friday, October 10, 2014

SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL


Review of SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL by HERMAN KOCH
(translated by SAM GARRETT, review based on an advance reading copy)

I have been meaning to read Koch’s bestselling novel THE DINNER since, well, before it was published. I have heard nothing but good things from readers with vastly different tastes who vaguely describe the story as a seemingly simply dinner between two middle class families that gradually unfolds into something far more unsettling. Though I honestly do very much want to read it, I kept pushing THE DINNER farther back on my to-read list to accommodate something else. So when the publisher sent me an ARC of SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL I (forgive me) dived right in.

Already I can see parallels in how I heard THE DINNER described and how I would describe SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL. For starters, it’s frankly plain difficult to describe any of the plot without giving much away. When you strip your description of spoilers, the story sounds bland, but trust me, SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL is quite the opposite of bland. Here goes my simplistic summary: our protagonist Dr. Marc Schlosser owns his own practice where he primarily treats celebrities. The book opens after one his patients, the famous actor Ralph Meier, has died and before long Ralph’s wife comes storming into Marc’s waiting room and accuses him of murder. (Maybe that didn’t sound so bland after all!) From there, the book backtracks to tell the story leading up to this outrageous accusation.

A great part of what makes this such a fascinating read is that I had no idea if Marc had indeed deliberately murdered Ralph. Right from start, before any dramatic accusations, Marc creeped me out. From pretty much the first sentence, I fervently admired the writing. Koch demonstrates how immensely word choice affects interpretation. For the first few chapters Marc talks more about his practice in general than the conflict with Ralph’s widow Judith. Yet the way Marc talks about his patients unnerved me. He’s so clinical and detached. Brutally, indifferently direct. Even the way he talks about his family (a wife and two preteen daughters) feels overly clinical. From the start the book has a nefarious feel. Did Marc murder Ralph? Has he murdered anyone else? Or is he in fact innocent, nothing more than a doctor growing weary and disillusioned with his job? After all, a callous attitude isn’t proof of guilt, but it does make one suspicious. 

Brilliant writing. Superb. I know I’ve already mentioned as much, but it bears repeating. Koch really wowed me throughout this entire book with his control of language. And Sam Garrett, I should mention, who translated this from the original Dutch. The writing, and by extension the tone, is what pulled me into this story so quickly and what kept me utterly absorbed until the end. I read multiple books at a time, so it’s especially telling when one emerges from the pile and demands my singular attention. SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL was one of those books. Less than halfway through, I found myself ignoring the rest of my stack while I finished this one, reading it everywhere I could: at the dinner table, at the gym, while walking down the stairs, etc.

Marc is an intriguing protagonist. He makes what I would consider ethically wrong decisions, except he doesn't even think about the ethics of his actions. Instead he focuses on how he can take these actions without any negative consequences. In other words, he focuses on getting away with it rather than grappling with guilt. I don’t find this unbelievable, but it definitely added to the creepiness factor. And it’s one of many themes that make this novel extremely discussion and, hence, book group worthy.

The ending strikes a surprisingly different tone than the rest of the book, one that still gave me chills but in a very different way. Of course, I want to avoid spoilers, so I’ll only say that it’s bittersweet and a little unexpectedly heartwarming for such an overall unsettling novel. Add the ending to the list of specifics worth further discussion.

SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL is consistently addictive and compelling. The book commanded my full attention even during simplistic sounding scenes because the writing and psychological implications are so mesmerizing. I expect I’ll still be thinking about this one for a while yet.

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