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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