Review: Strangers at the Feast, Jennifer Vanderbes

Strangers at the Feast is about a family getting together for Thanksgiving dinner. Scholar Ginny has rebounded from a bad relationship by semi-legally adopting an Indian orphan called Priya, and she wants to bring her family together to meet Priya. The family is Ginny’s brother Doug, who has lost significant money since the housing crisis, and his wife Denise, and Doug and Ginny’s parents, old-school matriarch Eleanor and Gavin, a Vietnam veteran who missed out on his dreams as he worked to provide for his family. In a plotline across town, two young, poor black kids are planning a scheme. Heavy foreshadowing indicates that tragedy will strike when the two plotlines finally intersect.

Why I read the end: I wanted to know if someone was going to die. Then I wanted to know if someone was going to be in massive trouble.

The good: Strangers at the Feast was more readable than I was expecting. For some reason I always think these contemporary slice-of-life books are going to be terrible. But Vanderbes did a nice job of developing the dynamics within the Olsen family. Each chapter skips around to the viewpoint of a different character, so the reader gets to see the characters from many different perspectives. If we first sympathize with Ginny for her mother’s overbearing nature, Vanderbes shows us the other side, how much Eleanor just wants to help make things go smoothly for her daughter.

Now, when I talk about the bad, I want to emphasize that readability counts for a lot with me. At no point in the book did I wish to give it up. I liked it and enjoyed reading it, and I might well read more by this author. There were just several things that displeased me.

The bad: Everyone was so, so mean to everyone else. I couldn’t like any of the characters except (more or less) Gavin. (I read the end the second time to see what was going to happen to poor old Gavin.) Ginny snapped at her mother over every little thing and wrote a really mean thing about her father. Eleanor did a sneaky bad thing to Gavin. Denise did sneaky bad things to Douglas. Douglas conducted shady business practices. You aren’t supposed to like these things about these characters, but I don’t think they were supposed to be altogether unsympathetic. Or maybe I’m wrong, and that was the point? Anyway, I hated them all. If my family did all these awful things to people I’d spend all my holidays in London. For heaven’s sake.

The foreshadowing was heavy-handed. I get that clear foreshadowing — something terrible will happen, police will be involved — can give the book momentum. However, there’s a flip side, which is that you’ll foreshadow too heavily, build up too much momentum, and the terrible thing will never seem as terrible as you made it sound like it was going to be. Which, yeah, is what happens in Strangers at the Feast. The book is so much build-up, and not enough pay-off, and what pay-off there is, is heavy-handed its own self. You’ll know what I mean when you read it. Plus, I wanted the denouement to play out differently. I can’t say much more without spoiling everything, but look, I wanted things to go down differently.

Again I say, I did enjoy reading this. I just had problems with certain aspects of it. I read it as the first pick for the new New York bloggers’ book club, and I think it was an excellent pick for a book club. Lots of issues to discuss (maybe too many?). But, alas, I had to miss our book club meeting. Sorry ladies! Next month I will be all over it!

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19 thoughts on “Review: Strangers at the Feast, Jennifer Vanderbes

  1. This is one that I’ve heard quite a bit about – I’m interested to pick this one up since there seem to be many layers to it and so many moments that might be incredibly memorable. And it is hard, though, to not like the characters but still enjoy the book – yet those might be the books we can’t ever forget, you know?

    • I do totally know what you mean, but it wasn’t that for me. It wasn’t insightful enough to make up for its nasty characters, or tightly plotted enough. I didn’t feel like the author had said something new or brilliant, which might have made a difference if I had.

  2. I had no idea what this book was about! Now that I do, I’m not sure I’m particularly interested. I like how you highlighted the good vs the bad; when people do that, I can usually judge from that if it’s a book I’ll enjoy.

  3. Shame about the foreshadowing – that sort of thing can get a bit silly (ominous organ chords resounding through B movies spring to mind). I do like a dysfunctional family story, but only appreciate people being mean to one another if they do it wittily or insightfully. Love the sound of your book club, though – very swish!

    • I need them to be preeeeetty witty and insightful, if they’re going to treat each other like crap, especially if they are family. Otherwise I get a bit depressed.

  4. I was wondering throughout the review why you read this – it doesn’t sound very much like you – but I see it is a book club pick, so that explains it. Book clubs are excellent in this regard, making you read things you never would have otherwise.

    I completely agree with you about the unlikeable characters – that is such a Thing in modern literature, and the problem is, I don’t think it actually corresponds to reality. I mean, I like about 80% of the people I meet, and even the ones I don’t like usually have at least some touching qualities. Also, from the point of view of the author, why even write about characters you don’t like? (But maybe she does like them. Maybe?)

    • Yep, exactly. I wouldn’t have read this or our next-month book (which is short stories) if it weren’t for book club. So that is a good thing for me. Expand my horizons.

      Mumsy, that is an excellent point. Even if I don’t actively like the people I meet, I rarely dislike them. Whereas modern authors seem so very much in love with characters nobody could possibly like.

  5. Another blogger sent me this book right around Christmas, and I am saving it for Thanksgiving this year. I have heard others say that the characters are very, very mean to each other, and that the book is a downer, but I am very much interested in reading it because I really like dark books. That being said, it sucks about the heavy use of foreshadowing. I like that it’s compulsively readable though, as was your review!

    • Wow, you will have a hella grim Thanksgiving read awaiting you. :p But I think it’s the kind of book you’d really enjoy, even if it wasn’t quite up my street.

  6. Hmm. I have trouble with books with unlikeable characters. They have to be really, really interesting, or I just give up. Or I don’t give up, but I complain to all and sundry about how horribly unlikeable and boring they are, and I tell everyone how I should probably just give up but I won’t because I’m stubborn.

    • Same here. In this case I didn’t struggle to finish it, because like I said, it was very readable. But I did get fed up with how nasty everyone was to each other.

  7. This sounds a lot like The Corrections to me; a book which I hated and stopped reading. And then tried to read again because everyone talked about how great it was and I got so angry with the characters for all hating on one another that I tried to give the book away. Anyway, think I’ll be skipping this one. 🙂

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