Book Review: The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2017)

This book will be available for sale in May 2017. I read an Advanced Readers Copy, provided by the publisher.

I believe I’ve mentioned that at the start of 2017 I decided I wanted to make sure I read more short stories this year than I did in 2016. Since I enjoyed Ferris’ previous novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, I was happy to have an opportunity to read his upcoming short story collection.

Ferris combines charm and discomfort masterfully, taking his characters into awkward, sometimes surreal situations. In my opinion, the best short stories have a sort of open-endedness to them rather than trying to tie up all the loose threads like you might expect in a novel. Ferris excels at this here and readers will probably either love it or hate it but I quite loved it.

In the title story, a couple prepare to have friends over for a dinner party. The wife cooks and preps exhaustively while the husband (and narrator) gripes about how he doesn’t even like these people. When their friends don’t show up, he goes to their apartment and finds something entirely unexpected. And while the situation he ends up in isn’t the most realistic, it’s an unrealistic portrayal of a very real situation and emotions.

Probably my favourite story was about a young woman named Sarah who, excited by the spring breeze, calls her boyfriend home early from work to enjoy the day together. The story twists and turns through differing scenarios, exploring the tiny moments and choices that can change a day or a life. Ferris’ understanding of human complexity is spot on and leaves the most unrealistic moments feeling completely honest.

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Book Review – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

A couple of chapters in and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Little, Brown & Co, 2014) began to make me feel like I need to book a dentist appointment. Though probably not with Paul O’Rourke, the main character, narrator, and dentist of the novel.

Paul is outwardly successful – he owns his dental practice, which seems busy enough, in New York City, and he has a certain passion toward his work and regarding oral health, and he seems proud to live in NYC. But it’s clear almost immediately how deeply unhappy Paul is. He’s an insomniac who knows he isn’t taking advantage of New York’s benefits, he finds his work frustrating because people just won’t floss, and his girlfriend who recently dumped him is still his office manager, Connie.

At its heart though, this is a book of faith and religion and I thought those subjects were handled by Ferris both creatively and thoughtfully.

Paul is an ardent atheist. Although, as he explains his past relationships, we see the ways he’s changed himself after falling in love. (And how that inevitably backfires for him.) We see his cringe-worthy behaviour with Connie’s Jewish family – his intense desire to be loved by them is painful and hilarious. Probably because many of us can relate. We see the ways Paul’s past and his own family have shaped him and grown in him this intense need to be accepted. We may not want to identify with Paul in most aspects but in this one, you really can’t help it.

The plot thickens when Paul finds a website set up for his dental practice – something he’s always refused to have. While the site is completely accurate and seems innocuous, it’s a mystery who set it up and why. Strangest of all are the quotes found on his bio page. Although they sound as if they come from the Bible, they have a strange focus on the Amalekites and every Biblical scholar Paul shows them to doesn’t recognize them. Paul finds more evidence of this alter ego on-line, posting in forums, tweeting, Always with reference to these mysterious verses, a slaughter of the Amalekites, a lone survivor, a people sworn to doubting God. As Paul tries to investigate, he becomes more intrigued and more caught up.

Not wanting to reveal too much, I’ll leave it there but I will say the plot gets very interesting and opens up some of the biggest questions in life. What is faith? Can doubt ever be an act of faith? Can it be holy? What do we look for when we join faith communities. What do we want, really want, from our lives?

Paul’s search for answers takes him into a secret history and possibly his own past. Whether or not he can ever find happiness there, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Ferris, thankfully, never talks down to his readers.

The book is very well-written and a worthy entry as one of two of the first American inclusions for the Man Booker Prize. Ferris stirs up these big questions with a light hand, rarely hinting at what his own opinion might be. Best of all, he succeeds with Paul as a narrator, a character who’s awkward and difficult and not particularly likeable and yet you still find yourself hoping for his best.