Review #18: Fiction
Blogging for Books #3
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch
I haven’t read any of Herman Koch’s previous work, but apparently he is known for his unlikable characters, and on this point, his fans won’t be disappointed. I found each character either unremarkable to the point where I didn’t care at all, or unlikable to the point where I wasn’t all that interested in how the story played out for them. I read to find out where Koch was going with this plot, to see how he would tie all the ends together, but for the most part I was not engaged with the characters.
I do enjoy a good unlikable character, but I always feel like at least one needs to be likable enough to keep me rooting for them throughout. Each character in Summer House was either forgettable or reprehensible. Bad things happened to bad people and I guess I just wasn’t concerned with how it all ended, because no matter the consequences, they’d earned it.
That said, Koch clearly knows how to write these characters; he did a wonderful job making each one just horrible enough that you could never really decide which was a worse person than the last. The adults in the novel were awful to each other and the men especially awful to women. I suppose this was all part of creating the unlikable characters, but the blatant misogyny and sexism, though effective, wasn’t my cup of tea. Even the children, save the two youngest, were rude, self-centered, and conniving. Again, it’s clear that Koch is a master of the unlikable character, so if that’s the type of story you gravitate toward, this might be a great read for you.
The story revolves around Dr. Marc Schlosser and his patient and famous actor Ralph Meier. Schlosser runs a general practice and Ralph comes to see him about a lump he’s found. Soon after, Ralph is dead and people begin looking to Schlosser for answers.
We’re given the story from the present, when Ralph’s wife confronts Schlosser at his office, accusing him of murdering her husband. We’re then taken to the previous summer when Schlosser’s family spent time with Ralph’s family at the Meier summer home. Through the events that happen at the summer house, we’re given glimpses into the awful lives the adults are living, and the addition of their children (two girls for the Schlossers and two boys for the Meiers) we see their actions and behavior as even more despicable.
Something happens at the house that turns Schlosser against Meier, though the true facts are kept from him and reader until the end of the book. The meaty part of the story is finding out what really happened at the summer house, what in turn happened to Ralph (and if Schlosser was involved), and what comes next. Though we are finally told what really happened at the summer house, and exactly how Ralph died, we are left without the “what comes next” part. We see Schlosser and what consequences he could be facing for his actions throughout the book, but we never see if he gets what’s coming or not.
I was interested in finding out the truth behind the tragedy at the summer house, and also how Schlosser was connected to Ralph’s death, but I was disconnected a bit. I didn’t care that Ralph was dead because he was such an unlikable character. I was concerned with the truth of the events at the summer house, however, I felt let down when it was finally revealed; it was all a bit lack-luster. And as I also cared very little for Schlosser, not seeing if he had to face the consequences of his actions left something to be desired. I wasn’t looking for a happy ending, I just felt like there wasn’t an ending at all. It felt a bit open-ended. I would have rather known definitively if he got what was coming to him or if he didn’t rather than, perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t.
Regardless, Koch did a great job of making his characters unlikable, though I personally found them therefore be uninteresting and found myself disconnected from the story surrounding them. I like that we start in the present to set the scene and then are taken back to the summer (and given short scenes from even further back to when Schlosser was in med school), then back to the present where we move forward with the characters.
I’ve seen reviews of this book where people say the story is too graphic. I, however, found it appropriately graphic for the most part. Some of the graphic descriptions help depict the awfulness of the characters and their thoughts and actions. This is also an adult novel, so language and graphic visuals shouldn’t really be much of a shock. We’re also dealing with a medical novel. The main character is a general physician and he goes into detail about his work (and what he hates about it) and I found those passages to be necessary for both mood and character building. To this point, I think it’s very much personal preference; I don’t find it overly graphic, though Koch does not sugarcoat anything, so don’t expect that.
In the end, I read to see what happened, but I in no way found myself unable to put it down. It was not a page-turner, it was well-written and seemed well-researched when it came to the medical aspects, and the characters are brilliantly written (if not personally enjoyably). I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it.
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.
*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.