Exploring sibling relationships is often an important dimension of the therapeutic process. Understanding the dynamics between siblings sheds light on one's historical roles in the family. Understanding family roles from childhood can be key to understanding current patterns in romantic, professional and social relationships.
Jhumpa Lahiri's riveting new book, "The Lowland", begins with a beautiful narrative exploring the complex relationship between two brothers growing up in Calcutta. Subhash and Udayan are just 15 months apart and, while they are incredibly close, they are also completely different. Through tracking their stories and the complex ties that bond and challenge them, this heartbreaking novel demonstrates that sometimes the most intense sibling rivalry may take place among the closest of siblings. Lahiri understands that intense competition between siblings is not always conscious, and is not a reflection of how much siblings love one another. Siblings are hard-wired to compete, and parents may, without realizing it, foster their competition.
This gripping and poetic novel explores themes of loneliness, isolation, family secrets, political will, and the power of unconditional love. Lahiri understands that unresolved conflicts from one's past can cause us to create the kind of life we most want to avoid. Someone who wants to feel connected more than anything may play a tremendous role in their own loneliness and isolation. To this end, unresolved conflicts can lead us to choose unsuitable partners and deeply unsatisfying relationships. By facing painful dimensions from the past and acknowledging family secrets, the life one desires may eventually be possible.
Lahiri also understands that those who go through the most pain before they find love and connection tend to treasure it the most. In a beautiful description of one character's marriage later in life, Lahiri describes the humbling joy he feels in having found his life partner. Her words explain with directness and clarity that one cannot choose a happy, healthy relationship until one is emotionally ready to experience intimacy:
"He wakes up in the bed where he lies with his new wife...He goes downstairs and pens the door at the back of the house. He steps barefoot onto the wooden porch that overlooks the garden, the pastures beyond, running down the Kenmare Bay. His hair is thick, snowy white. His wife likes to run her fingers through it. He sees the wide beam of the moon's light over the water, pouring down. He is overwhelmed by the sky's clarity, the number of stars...He returns to bed, still looking out the window at the sky, the stars. He is startled anew by the fact that their beauty, even in daytime, is there. He is awash with the gratitude of his advancing years, for the timeless splendors of the earth, for the opportunity to behold them...The years the couple have together are a shared conclusion to lives separately built, separately lived. There is no use wondering what might have happened if the man had met her in his forties, or in his twenties. He would not have married her then."
For those struggling to come to terms with complicated sibling relationships, and for those who tend to choose unsatisfying relationships and unsuitable romantic partners, "The Lowland" is a must-read testament to the human ability to overcome these challenges.
Pieces of April(2003, Peter Hedges, 80 minutes)Thanksgiving is a holiday filled with many traditions -- Grandma's cranberry sauce, mom's holiday decor and marathon football viewing fall into the category of expected traditions celebrated by the media and popular culture. A lesser publicized truth is that, for many families, there is an unspoken tradition of drama or dysfunction that family members come to dread and expect.
Thanksgiving week may be the most psychologically intense time of the year, especially for those who are in therapy or are actively seeking to improve their family relationships. As a therapist, this is a week full of discussions about anxiety, anticipation and longing. As a client recently explained: "I've grown up and made an independent responsible life, but I walk through the Thanksgiving door and it's as if I become a miserable teenager all over again!" This is a week where I work with many clients preparing for their attempts to navigate holiday dynamics differently. This is a week where many are hopeful that they can change themselves for the better and, in turn, change the family dynamic.
It is no surprise that families tend to resist even the most positive changes. If a family is used to a parent drinking his or herself under the table each Thanksgiving, and this parent is finally in recovery, this important change for the better may be uncomfortable for everyone else at the holiday table. Without the annual drunken stupor, what will everyone talk about? Likewise, if one family member takes the simple step of approaching Thanksgiving as an opportunity to communicate in a more positive, less critical way than in years past, this, too, may be met with resistance from those who are simply used to and therefore expecting to engage in the annual drama.
Pieces of April, a 2003 drama written and directed by Peter Hedges and starring Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson, highlights how genuinely difficult it is to break out of old patterns and improve family relationships. Taking place on Thanksgiving day, the film follows the dual story lines of April (Holmes) who is preparing a Thanksgiving meal for her family from which she is estranged, and her family's reluctant road trip towards April's gritty New York City apartment. April's Thanksgiving is particularly charged by the fact that April's mother, Joy (Clarkson), is battling breast cancer.
The frequent use of pay phones and traditional paper road maps date this decade-old film, and yet on a psychological level it is timeless. Intense sibling rivalry, the use of humor to avoid and inflict pain, turkey trauma, overeating and denial are among the classic family dynamics that make this a perfect Thanksgiving film. In anxious anticipation of the holiday meal, Joy jumps out of the car and tries to hitchhike home. As her husband chases her, Joy yells:
"All I can remember was the PETULANCE, the SHOPLIFTING, the fire in the kitchen...the time she used a lighter to cut Jimmy's bangs, the DRUGS, the INGRATITUDE...No wonder there's cancer, she's the cancer!"
April's father assures Joy that this Thanksgiving will be different:
"We're making a memory. I promise it will be beautiful...I told her it had to be."
Her status as the family outcast is quite clear to April as she cooks Thanksgiving dinner and responds to her neighbors' shock when they learn of April's failure to visit her mother since the cancer diagnosis:
"She likes it better that way. I'm the first pancake." When one neighbor looks confused by April's pancake comment, the other neighbor explains:
"She's the one you're supposed to throw out."
One of the most brutal and realistic details of the film is its message that, even when everyone is trying their best, change can be incredibly difficult. Another important truth that Holmes and Clarkson portray beautifully is that, in spite of how hard it is to truly change a family relationship for the better, change is almost always possible.
If you are stressing about your upcoming Thanksgiving plans, and you want to do things differently this holiday, viewing Pieces of April will bring intense but realistic inspiration
(2007, Zoe Cassavetes, 93 minutes)When you are single, it can seem like absolutely everyone is in a relationship. It can also seem like everyone expects you to find a relationship. People can say and do the most hurtful and insensitive things to convey the message that you are somehow less than those who are part of a couple. What should be a time of independence and personal growth can feel like a period of intense isolation and pain. Being single is especially challenging if you are simultaneously grieving a significant loss.
Broken English, an understated film starring Parker Posey, is among the most intense and thoughtful portrayals of the urban life of a single woman. Writer and director Zoe Cassavetes, the daughter of the late, great, John Cassavetes, uses a cinematic style similar to her father's that allows her characters to seem incredibly real. This film does not set out to entertain. Instead, through a series of simple and sometimes painful conversations and experiences, viewers are given an honest look at the struggle to exist as a single thirty-something woman grieving the death of her father. Nora battles severe anxiety and her solitary efforts to manage stress are as moving as her efforts when among others. Some aspects of the film are so unsettling that you may find it difficult to watch and more useful to reflect upon and appreciate once the film is over.
Nora (Posey) oversees guest relations in a wanna-be chic boutique hotel. The film opens as she anxiously dresses and then attends her best friend Audrey's anniversary party. Nora braces herself for Audrey's husband's earnest toast: "It's not often that you get a chance to meet the girl of your dreams much less got to marry her...I want to take a moment to thank Nora Wilder who introduced us. Without her there wouldn't be an us."
As if this toast weren't enough, Nora's mother (played brilliantly by Cassavetes' real-life mother Gena Rowlands) is also at the party and remarks: "I wish you would have married Mark. He was always crazy about you; you know that. It would have been perfect...He's handsome, he's successful, he has a terrific trust fund. Audrey is never going to have to work again....You never should have introduced them...I'm just saying she knew a good thing when she saw it. The good ones get snapped up so quickly at your age."
Perhaps part of what allows the film to seem so accessible relates to the backstory: the director did lose her father, and the director's real-life mother is playing the mother of the film's protagonist. The conversations between mother and daughter on the topics of love, loss and relationships are at once maddening, engaging and heartbreaking. It is as if you have walked into this family's real life in the aftermath of John Cassavetes' death.
Zoe Cassavetes understands and beautifully conveys two things that make this film worthwhile viewing for anyone who is single and struggling. First: the idea that everyone else is in a relationship and therefore happy is a significant, misguided illusion. Second (and most important): in order to find a happy, healthy relationship, you must find happiness in yourself. People say this all of the time and it can easily sound cliche. This film plays out this truth out in brutal detail. When you are unhappy in your independent life, you cannot possibly bring someone else into a happy, healthy, functioning union. If you are single and struggling, Nora's gritty, gutsy path could be inspiring and even cathartic.
(2013, Nicole Holofcener, 93 minutes)In his final film, James Gandolfini is extraordinary. For years, Gandolfini mastered the portrayal of the ultimate bad-boy that women fell for against all better judgement. In Enough Said, a new film by Nicole Holofcener, Gandolfini portrays Albert, a warm-hearted, middle-aged, television historian. With his large and gentle heart, this anti-Tony Soprano embodies the ultimate good-guy that women often mistakenly overlook.
As a therapist, one of my specialities is helping clients stop choosing "Tony Sopranos" and start choosing "Alberts".
When Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) meets Albert, she seems intrigued but conflicted. Early on, Eva is compelled to let Albert know she is not sure if she can actually kiss him. From their very first interaction, their chemistry and compatibility is undeniable. They are both divorced parents of daughters who are about to leave for college. They seem completely real with each other, and at ease. They share a dry sense of humor.
Yet their relationship is marred by Eva's insecurity. At first, when Albert has an unexpected encounter with Eva's daugher's best friend and makes a great impression, Eva is unduly swayed by the teenager's viewpoint. It seems as if she needs permission to proceed with what is unfolding as a great relationship, and she is looking for this permission in all of the wrong places.
As this well-suited couple continue to grow closer, Eva's character flaws become highlighted. Upon discovering that her glamorous new friend and massage therapy client Marianne (Catherine Keener) is actually Albert's first wife, Eva walks through a highly dysfunctional door that Marianne unknowingly opens as she begins spilling her guts about the myriad of reasons she divorced.
What writer/director Holofcener understands so well is the human tendency to worry too much about what other people think. This inclination to over-value the opinions of others is often most noticeable and most problematic when it comes to dating and choosing romantic partners. Eva impulsively sabotages her otherwise romanic love story by likening Marianne to the ultimate "Trip Advisor" and equating Albert to a questionable hotel room. She reasons that if people routinely collect information from travelers to avoid staying in bad hotel rooms, why not do the same thing with relationships? The more Eva hears from Marianne about Albert's flaws, the more it undermines her ability to form an independent bond with Albert.
When someone values the opinions of others over their own views, they are basically handing over a large piece of themselves to people who may not share their values or interests. Eva learns the important lesson that in order to have a happy, healthy, romantic relationship, one must possess a strong sense of self and therefore possess the ability to prioritize their own values, opinions and desires. If you are looking to examine your patterns in dating, and you think you may have a pattern of overlooking suitable and available romantic partnters, Eva's trajectory in this heartwarming relationship will be an inspiration worth viewing.
(2012, Noah Buschel, 81 minutes)
This quiet, intimate love story offers a sensitive look into the rare but real mental illness, agoraphobia. Filmed entirely in the apartment of an agoraphobic actress, Sparrows Dance
paints a portrait of the contained and controlled life this illness demands.
Agoraphobia is a form of panic disorder in which the sufferer feels overwhelming anxiety when entering certain environments that they fear are dangerous or threatening. In its most severe form, the sufferer feels terrified to leave home. While the anxiety depicted in this film is extreme due to the nature of the diagnosis, the story and its message are relevant to anyone struggling with anxiety.
The tortured protagonist (Marin Ireland) lives on take out, lives off of residuals from her presumably short-lived acting career, and entertains herself through rides on a stationary exercise bike and dinners in front of her television. She is so brutally defined by her illness that the film never even reveals her name.
Marin Ireland's remarkable ability to convey the crippling anxiety her character experiences is palpable and, at times, painful to watch.
When her toilet overflows, she is so desperate to avoid contact that she asks if she can pay the plumbing company to walk her through fixing the toilet over the phone. The company instead sends Wes, a plumber by day and jazz musician by night.
The romance that unfolds between Wes and the protagonist demonstrates that love alone cannot solve personal battles or demons. While their relationship is transformative, the power of the story is not Wes' ability to help cure his beloved. What this film does best is demonstrate how honest communication can relieve anxiety and bring two people closer together.
In one of the film's many moving exchanges, Wes listens to the actress admit to her illness by acknowledging that while she was dressed up for work when he originally came to fix her toilet, she does not have a job. Wes replies "You don't have a job? What do I care? I'm not your parole officer... I just want to be around you." She goes on to describe the full spectrum of her battle with her fear of leaving home and refers to herself as "nutty". When she is done, he hugs her and says "You're not nutty, you're just having a little trouble leaving your apartment. I have trouble with full moons.....I'm relieved right now, for a minute there I thought that you didn't desire to see me." These two beautiful characters do not judge each other, they do not analyze one another, and they do not try to fix each other. They simply enjoy each other's presence and know how to say how they feel. By no means does Wes make light of her struggles. Instead, he gently challenges her to work through them.
In an unusually realistic conclusion, the film's message is that change may not happen over-night, and the process of overcoming pain is not always straightforward nor easy. However, for those willing to take even the smallest of steps, change is, indeed, possible. For anyone struggling with significant social anxiety and or difficulty leaving home, Sparrows Dance
is worthwhile viewing and quietly inspiring.
(2010, Elizabeth Gilbert, Viking)
As a therapist practicing since 1995, one of the most common requests I receive is for a good book about marriage. This request is especially common among newly engaged couples and people who are struggling to decide whether to marry their current partner.
There are some interesting self-help books about the psychological aspects of wedding preparation and how the planning process can reflect the individuals and their relationship -- Lies at the Altar and The Conscious Bride are two frequent suggestions. There are also some useful books about strengthening or repairing a marriage. Getting the Love You Want works well for those who want to explore how childhood experiences influence current intimate relationships. All of John Gottman's books about marriage (Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work) offer practical information and strategies based on current research. 1001 Questions to Ask Before You Get Married -- while at times superficial -- is a comprehensive conversation guide for engaged couples or couples contemplating engagement. 1001 Questions is unusual in that it is a marriage preparation guidebook without a religious bent.
These materials have been wonderful resources for many of my clients (and friends) over the years. Certain books make more sense for certain people. However, for many people, self-help books simply do not resonate. To this end, the book that I have found most useful to those who are newly engaged or contemplating marriage is Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.
As many know from her breakthrough bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert struggled with the heartbreak of her own divorce and grieved this loss in part by writing of her remarkable journey through Italy, India and Indonesia. Indonesia represents the "Love" portion of her story where she meets and falls madly in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born Australian citizen and gem dealer. Since they both survived awful divorces, the book ends with them pledging their love through the shared commitment to NEVER, EVER marry.
Their steadfast commitment to not marry is where Eat, Pray, Love ends and Committed begins. When the couple is pulled aside at a border crossing and told that Felipe has used too many temporary visas and may not enter the United States again unless they marry, Gilbert sets out on a quest to learn everything there is to know about marriage. With a remarkable blend of self-depricating humor, wit and intelligence, Gilbert becomes marriage's ultimate anthropologist. She opens chapter one with Robert Louis Stevenson's quotation: "marriage is a friendship recognized by the police." She writes beautifully of her research of the institution of marriage in a Hmong village:
"I was granted the clearest possible insight...when I asked the tiny old Hmong grandmother one final question, which again, she thought bizarre and foreign. 'Is your husband a good husband?' I asked. The old woman had to ask her granddaughter several times, just to make sure she'd heard it correctly: Is he a good husband? Then she gave a bemused look, as though I'd asked, 'These stones which composed the mountains in which you live - are they good stones?' The best answer she could come up with was this: Her husband was neither a good husband nor a bad husband. He was just a husband. He was the way that husbands are...With rare exceptions, one man is pretty much the same as another...'Everybody knows that this is true.' The other Hmong ladies all nodded in agreement."
Gilbert uses extensive research on topics such as infidelity and infatuation to challenge common ideas and assumptions:
"...Infatuation is the most perilous aspect of human desire. Infatuation leads to what psychologists call 'intrusive thinking' - that famously distracted state in which you cannot concentrate on anything other than the object of your obsessions. Once infatuation strikes, all else - jobs, relationships, responsibilities, food, sleep, work - falls by the wayside as you nurse fantasies about your dearest one that quickly become repetitive, invasive, and all-consuming...The problem with infatuation, of course, is that it's a mirage, a trick of the eye - indeed, a trick of the endocrine system. Infatuation is not quite the same thing as love; it's more like love's shady second cousin who's always borrowing money and can't hold down a job. When you become infatuated with somebody, you're not really looking at that person; you're just captivated by your own reflection, intoxicated by a dream of completion that you have projected on a virtual stranger."
If anyone has created a more comprehensive yet accessible examination of marriage and the emotional, psychological and anthropological and elements that inform us to marry, I have not seen or heard of it.
In one of the most moving vignettes, Gilbert attempts to "at least try to minimize" the odds of divorce by listing her worst flaws to her beloved. These faults include:
"1) I think very highly of my own opinion. I generally believe that I know best how everyone in the world should be living their lives - and you, most of all, will be the victim of this...5) My most dishonorable fault of all: Though it takes me a long while to get to this point, the moment I have decided that somebody is unforgivable, that person will very likely remain unforgiven for life - all too often cut off forever without fair warning, explanation, or another chance."
The wise Felipe assures her that he is aware of her laundry list of flaws and that he loves her still. He then explains:
"When I used to go down to Brazil to buy gemstones, I would often buy something they call 'a parcel.' A parcel is this random collection of gems...Supposedly, you get a better deal that way - buying them all in a bunch - but you have to be careful, because of course the guy is trying to rip you off. He's trying to unload his bad gemstones on you by packaging them together with a few really good ones...After I got burned enough times, I finally got wise and learned this: You have to ignore the perfect gemstones. Don't even look at them twice because they're blinding. Just put them away and have a careful look at the really bad stones. Look at them for a long time, and then ask yourself honestly, 'Can I work with these?" Gilbert continues:
"It's the same with relationships...People always fall in love with the mot perfect aspects of each other's personalities. Who wouldn't? Anybody can love the most wonderful parts of another person. But that's not the clever trick. The really clever trick is this: Can you accept the flaws? Can you look at your partner's faults honestly and say, 'I can work around that. I can make something out of that'?"
For those who are struggling with the question of whether to commit to your romantic partner, and for those who are engaged to marry and looking for informative reading as they plan their wedding, Committed that is less of a "how-to" approach to marriage and more of a friend.
THE WAY WAY BACK(2013, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, 103 minutes)
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's heartwarming, psychologically astute film The Way Way Back has all of the elements of a perfect end-of-summer film. The luring beach, the breezy boat rides, the classic water park, the welcoming summer cottage and the festive outdoor dinners remind us what we will miss about summer. The film's enticing aesthetic threatens to make it all the more challenging to return to our fall routines.
Then again, Steve Carell's superb portrayal of Trent, the lame and annoying boyfriend of fourteen year-old protagonist Duncan's mother, reminds us why sometimes even the best vacations need to end sooner rather than later.
This wonderful coming-of-age story follows Duncan's efforts to take space from the sub-standard Trent and to come to terms with his parents' divorce and the pain of his father's absence and rejection. The film opens with Duncan huddling in the way, way back of the car, while Trent informs him that, on a scale of one to ten, he is a three. Duncan's profound awkwardnesses and teenage angst is painful to watch and thoroughly believable. He barely knows how to swim much less talk to a girl. Through a hilarious and surprising friendship with Owen, the manager of the Water Wizz water park, Duncan finds his voice, discovers some memorable dance moves, and makes his way.
The most important and somewhat unusual message of this powerful story is that sometimes children receive parenting and critical emotional support from unexpected parent figures who are able to give what biological parents have been unable or unavailable to provide. The ability to connect with surrogate, stand-in parent figures can be transformative or even life saving. It is a survival skill that is surpisingly common among children of divorce. Few films have explored this dynamic as well as The Way Way Back; however, Good Will Hunting comes to mind as a completely different story with a similar theme. Whether adjusting to a trauma as difficult as a parents' divorce (Duncan's), or as emotionally paralyzing as foster care and physical abuse (Will Hunting's), connecting with someone who is not a friend and not a parent, but somewhere in-between makes a lasting impact that is beautifully and creatively explored in both of these wonderful films.
GOOD WILL HUNTING
(1997)126 minutes, directed by Gus Van Sant
Many people enter therapy because they are struggling to make a decision about commitment. Sometimes, deciding to commit to a romantic partner can produce tremendous anxiety, especially for those who have not been exposed to healthy, intimate relationships.
Directed by Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting
is an intense and inspiring coming-of-age film about friendship, loyalty, and living up to one’s potential. It is also a remarkable exploration of intimacy and fear of commitment. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
became over-night celebrities as the writers and co-stars of this film for which they shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a product of the foster care system living on the South Side of Boston and working as a janitor at MIT. He begins solving complex equations on the blackboard that have rendered the elite university students stumped. It turns out that Will Hunting possesses the kind of mathematical genius that comes along once in a lifetime. After assaulting a police officer, Will represents himself in court and avoids jail time by agreeing (reluctantly) to meet regularly with a therapist. To say that Will resists his work with therapist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams) is something of an understatement. The therapy is somewhat unconventional, and the breakthrough moment is an over-simplification of the therapeutic process; however, the therapy serves as a remarkable backdrop for an exploration of intimacy, fear of commitment, and the human struggle to live up to one’s potential.
What is unusual about this film is its ability to explore intimacy and commitment in a way that feels honest and real. By doing so, Good Will Hunting
demonstrates that sometimes the most important aspects of parenting may not take place with a biological parent. The human ability to connect on an intimate level with friends, mentors and teachers may fill gaps that parents have been unavailable or otherwise unable to provide. Sometimes people who were not properly protected or nurtured by their biological parents figure out ways to meet these unmet needs through developing formative relationships with parent figures so that they do not get stuck in unhealthy patterns and instead develop the ability to experience intimacy and live up to their potential.
If you are struggling with the question of whether to take an intimate relationship to the next level, viewing Good Will Hunting could be a worthwhile step in your decision making process.
LAST NIGHT (2010) 1 hour, 32 minutes, Written and Directed by Massy Tadjedin
As a therapist, one truth I witness again and again is that infidelity
is much more common, and much more complicated, than it seems. Affairs that take place on an emotional level are often more difficult to recover from than those involving a physical attraction leading to sex. Few films explore the difference between these dynamics in such a sophisticated way as Massy Tadjedin’s 2010 film “Last Night”.
Another lesser-discussed truth about affairs is that many couples fight about the third party early on, before any marital transgression has occurred. “Last Night”
insightfully portrays how one partner can pick up on an attraction and experience a powerful reaction even if no one has technically cheated. Many times couples enter therapy following an affair, and they will recall fights that were focused on the third party months before things went astray.
Joanna (Keira Knightley) and Michael (Sam Worthington) are a young, glamorous, married couple living in New York City. From the moment that Joanna lays eyes on Michael’s sensual colleague, Laura (Eva Mendes), she senses the palpable chemistry between them. Her radar in this early scene and the discussion that follows is intensely similar to my clients’ frequent descriptions. While the compressed timing of events that play out over the two-day period in which the film takes place is somewhat unrealistic, the dynamics and dialogue between Joanna and Michael, are compelling, painful and very real.
The most significant truth that more than fifteen years working with couples has taught me is that if both partners are fully committed to making their marriage work following the discovery of infidelity, they can come through it closer than they were before, and with a happier, more intimate, more committed marriage. One of the many awful things about an affair is that it is not something that people can ever forget. However, especially if the spouse who cheated is willing to do whatever it takes to rebuild trust, couples can and do get through it.
For couples that discover infidelity and remain wholly committed to making the marriage work, “Last Night” may be a helpful film to watch together and discuss. Indeed, many couples I have worked with have found this film helpful. Joanna and Michael clearly love each other deeply and dispel the myth that something must be deeply, desperately flawed in a marriage if someone cheats. When asked by his provocative colleague, Laura, if he is happily married, Michael replies:
“Yes, very; you can be happy and still be tempted.”
Interestingly, not one but both partners experience temptation while apart from one another. How Joanna and Michael deal with their respective extra-marital love interests is the focal point of the movie and can serve as a catalyst for productive conversations.
The most powerful aspect of this film is its understanding of context. When two people are involved in an extra-marital affair, it becomes easy to confuse fantasy with reality. In other words, what usually brings two people together in an affair is not necessarily sustainable in real life. Joanna says it perfectly to her ex, Alex (Guillaume Canet), who happens to be visiting from out of town on the very evening that Michael is on a business trip with Laura:
“I don’t know that this would be what it is on its own… This is only what it is because it’s something that’s between me, my marriage…you and your set of things.”
If you and your spouse are struggling with the discovery of infidelity, and you both are committed to saving your marriage, find a qualified couples therapist and consider sitting down together to view this powerful and engaging film.
Beginning with an aperitif, and persisting through three courses and a digestif,
Herman Koch’s “The Dinner”
explores a variety of difficult questions about social responsibility, sibling rivalry, parenting, technology, pathology, intimacy and marriage. This gripping story takes place in a restaurant in Holland and spans the course of a single meal. While offering no answers to the complex questions raised, this book’s beauty is in the observations and its perspective, not the answers. Koch’s keen exploration of the narrator’s inner emotional world is humorous, compelling and deeply disturbing. “The Dinner”
may frustrate readers who prefer to like at least some of a book’s primary characters. However, for readers drawn to beautiful writing about ugly thoughts, pathological actions and the darkest dimensions of human nature, Koch’s novel is essential.
Surveying the men’s room of the methodically chic restaurant where “The Dinner” is consumed, Koch’s narrator, Paul, observes: "They were all consistent parts of a whole: consistent with the waitresses’ tight ponytails, their black pinafores, the Art Deco lamp on the lectern, the organic meat, and the manager’s pinstripe suit – the only problem being that it was never exactly clear what that whole might boil down to. It was sort of like certain designer glasses, glasses that add nothing to the personality of the person wearing them. On the contrary, they draw attention first and foremost to themselves: I am a pair of glasses, and don’t you ever forget it!"
While the characters themselves and the situations they face are extreme, the most interesting writing relates to the most common tensions and complexities of human nature. As the meal unfolds, Koch challenges our assumptions about appearance and reality. The spoken and unspoken agreements that can seal or destroy marital intimacy are a haunting centerpiece of the narrative. With each course, the details intensify and the storyteller's perspective becomes increasingly painful:
"Sometimes I couldn’t help but think …that [she] had merely signed up for something, for a life at the side of a successful politician, and that it would have been a waste of all the time she’d invested to stop now – the way you don’t put aside a bad book when you’re halfway through it. You finish it reluctantly…Perhaps the ending would make up for some of it."
Readers may lose their appetite, and this could be Koch’s intention. However, the experience of feeling trapped in a disappointing book is highly unlikely with this spellbinding, page-turning tale.
“The Dinner” is Koch’s 6th of 7 novels and won the Publieksprijs Prize in 2009. Set in Holland, it has been published in twenty-five countries. In 2012 Sam Garrett translated the book from Dutch.