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Wednesday, January 19, 2011 5:12 pm
Strangers at the Feast
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr

When a reader is frustrated with the behavior of the characters in a book can that lead to a dismissal of the book?  Is this misguided aggression against the author or is the reader mirroring the behavior of the characters that they are reading about?  How enjoyable can a book be when it has multiple narrators and all of them are making “a career out of self-pity?”

There you go, three questions to ponder after reading Jennifer Vanderbes’s novel Strangers at the Feast.  The basic premise of this novel is that Ginny, the disappointing daughter whose academic career is misunderstood by her family, has decided to prepare Thanksgiving dinner at her house despite being unable to cook.  Her guests are her withdrawn father Gavin, a Vietnam vet, and her housebound mother Eleanor as well as her brother Douglas, caught with a new skyscraper no tenants will occupy and his wife Denise, crushed by their defeat in the downturned economy.

Each of these characters provide their own points of view in separate chapters, dissecting each step this family has made over time to lead to this dysfunctionality.  Their voices provide an angst driven text that lays out a host of flaws in the current American way of life.

What turns this novel from a character driven literary story into a noir crime tale is that unknown to all the narrators above, there is another character telling a tale.  His name is Kijo Jackson.  He is hiding, with his friend Spider Walcott, in the upper level of Douglas’s splendid mansion. 

The inevitable intersection of these stories is what drives the overall pace of the novel.  However, because it takes to the end of the book to get to this, the real pace of the novel is very dense.  This book should not be mistaken for a crime thriller;  it is a rich text that has to be read word for word to get the real meaning.  Its internal irony, its informed opinions on the state of our society, and its vivisection of these characters all creates a book well worth using in a book discussion.

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