The Dinner Book Summary and Study Guide

Detailed plot synopsis reviews of The Dinner

Two couples meet for dinner but it's not as simple as a catch-up over food: they have to discuss a crime both their sons recently committed and what they are going to do about it. The protagonist, Paul, speaks about how his brother, Serge, never reserves tables at top restaurants months in advance. He is able to get tables at the last minute. The reason for this is that he is a politician. It annoys Paul how everyone at restaurants gets a little star-struck whenever Serge enters the room. Paul and his wife (Claire) are going to meet Serge and his wife (Babette) at a nearby restaurant but neither really feels like it.
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Before the dinner, Paul and Claire go to a café. There, they speak about their son Michel and how he has recently been acting distant. Paul tells Claire he thinks it's nothing serious, but cannot look her in the eye. He thinks back to what had happened earlier that evening that is to blame for his secrecy.

He had gone to Michel's room and had peeked through his son's phone. When Michel came up to his room, he asked his dad why he was there. His father was vague. The reader still doesn't know what he has found on Michel's phone, but one great thing about this book is how it increases suspense as one continues reading.

Paul and Claire arrive at the restaurant before Serge and Babette. Items on the menu are expensive and Paul gets irritated when they end up having to pay ten euros for an aperitif. Serge and Babette arrive, with the owner welcoming them. Paul explains how Babette is a strong presence in the room and around her he always feels he has to make himself taller and bigger to be her equal. Tonight he notices that Babette looks like she has been crying.

It annoys Paul how everything takes long in the restaurant, with the manager taking his time to open a bottle of wine. When the bottle won't open, the manager removes it to fetch another. Paul notices how Serge is moody over this, probably wanting to have given them his usual speech about how much he knows about wine. After a description about what they're eating, Paul chooses not to order the same appetizer as anyone else, so he interestingly orders something that he doesn't even like.

The conversation turns to the subject of films, which Paul muses is a weakness because it is a subject that should be discussed when you've run out of others. He doesn't like it when Serge describes a movie as a masterpiece when to Paul it was 'pretty good'. He feels like he is wearing his brother's hand-me-downs. He picks on Serge's description of Scarlett Johannson, the star of the movie they'd been discussing, as though she had been all he was interested in seeing in the film.

Paul wonders about Babette's and Serge's marriage. He thinks maybe Babette had only wanted a life with a successful politician and couldn't exit it now because she had already invested in it. The couple has two children: Rick, who is fifteen-years-old like Michel, and Valerie. They also adopted a boy from Burkina Fasso called Beau. They didn't make any difference between him and their biological children, but Paul does notice how Beau would usually get his way with his mother.

A waitress accidentally bumps Claire's head when pouring wine and feels embarrassed, but Serge is charming to her. Paul muses how the waitress would probably go back to her partner or friend and tell them how she had embarrassed herself in front of a cabinet minister. Paul wonders if Babette would leave Serge after how he flirts openly with much younger women and wonders what Serge did to make her cry on the way to the dinner.

Every year Serge and Babette go to Dordogne in France with their children. Paul recalls when they had gone there the year previously to meet up with them and how Serge had been doing DIY remodelling at his home. It was during a party at the house when Frenchmen arrived, one holding a shotgun, and Michel, Rick and Beau with them. Beau was the one kicking and having to be restrained by the French men. Serge ran towards them and asked what was going on.

Back in the present time in the restaurant, Paul goes to the men's room where a man there asks if his daughter could take a photo with Serge. Paul agrees, saying he will signal to the man when it's the right time for him and his daughter to come over to their table.

When Paul returns to the table, everyone is silent, except for Babette crying. She and Serge start fighting and she storms off, with Claire in tow. Serge tells Paul Babette is having a hard time because she's going through menopause. He tells Paul they do need to speak about their children this evening - that is when Paul signals to the old man at the other table that he can come over.

When the main course arrives, the women have still not returned so Paul goes to find them. He walks outside, thinking about how Serge had fulfilled the man's request for a photo but then how he was looking a bit annoyed when the man and his daughter took their time to leave. A phone rings inside Paul's pocket - it is Michel's phone. Michel is at home, phoning his mobile to see where it ended up. He says that he needs his phone and is coming to pick it up from his dad at the restaurant.

Paul checks Michel's phone and sees someone by the name of Faso has called - he remembers this is the nickname the other boys had given Beau. When going through Michel's phone, he also sees the video section just as he had earlier that evening.

The video is of a platform at a subway station where a pair of white sneakers can be seen and then a homeless man. Rick's face appears and he hits the man. You can hear Michel's voice as he is filming it all.

Paul goes outside the restaurant to wait for his son, wondering how to deal with the situation, when he listens to the voicemail Beau had left, asking Michel to ring him back. There is also a message from Rick saying that they will do what they had to do tonight. Michel arrives but Paul is still busy with the phone. He hear Claire's voice on the phone as she left a message for her son earlier: he must do what they had agreed upon and not tell his father.

Paul explains to the reader what the boys had done: a few months ago they had gone to a party and then to an ATM machine afterwards to get money. A homeless person was huddled on the floor, blocking their entry to the machine. The boys were disgusted by this person they discovered is a woman because she smelled bad. Beau wanted the boys to leave, but Rick and Michel didn't. They screamed at the woman and then threw items left for trash collection - garbage bags, a lamp, an office chair - at her. Finally, they threw a jerrycan at her and lit it, causing an explosion. The footage appeared on a 'Most Wanted' show on TV.

Paul and Claire had seen the footage on TV and their reaction to the crime had been one of fury until Paul realized it was their son. The boys' faces could not be seen clearly but they were laughing in the footage. Paul waited for Claire to register it was their son, but she didn't say anything. Now, outside the restaurant, Paul mentions to Michel about the ATM and subway incidents that have been caught on video on his phone. Michel asks if his mother knows, and Paul says she doesn't.

The night the footage aired, Paul had gone to Michel's room and they talked about what happened. Paul had recalled when Michel was a young boy and he had smashed a shop window with a ball, causing Paul to go with him to apologize to the store owner. The owner was very upset, which then annoyed Paul to the point where he took a bicycle pump and threatened to cause more damage with it. Afterwards, Michel had cried and Paul said the man had deserved the threat. They kept the incident hidden from Claire. Regarding the ATM incident, Paul does the same thing: he tells Michel they should forget about it.

Outside the restaurant, Paul asks Michel why he never told him about the videos on his phone at the time of the incident. Michel says it wouldn't have made a difference. Paul recalls when he had zoomed into the video of the ATM incident and how he had spotted a white tennis shoe. It showed that the boys had returned to the scene of the crime but he knows it could've also been a shoe belonging to a witness. This made him search on YouTube for more footage and he found more videos. One of them was entitled 'Men In Black 3' and featured the boys. The video ended with the promise that the sequel was coming soon.

Paul realizes that Michel was the one calling the shots and bullying Rick into things. He asks Michel outside the restaurant why he posted the footage. Michel says it was Beau who had done it. He said that Beau wanted to be paid or else he would put the rest of it online.

Claire arrives and they say goodbye to their son. She asks Paul how long he's known and he tells her he's known since they saw the footage on TV. She says she didn't want to tell him about it for fear it would be too much to handle. She says that Michel had told her the night it happened and asked her what they should do.

Paul recalls being a history teacher and how his strong opinions and offensive remarks had caused some of his students to complain. He ended up in the principal's office. During their meeting, Paul fantasized about beating up the principal. The principal suggested Paul should see the school psychologist and take a break from teaching. Paul agreed.

The psychologist told Paul he had a German-sounding disorder (the protagonist does not say its exact name in the novel). He suggested therapy and medication to treat it. The psychologist mentioned that it is a defect that can be spotted prior to birth in tests analyzing the amniotic fluid. He said sometimes people don't run the risk of letting a child with this disorder survive; they rather choose to terminate the pregnancy. Paul wondered if Claire had the amniotic fluid test when pregnant with Michel.

Paul wanted to ask Claire about the test but instead suggested they go on holiday. This didn't happen because Claire got sick and had to be taken to hospital where she underwent various surgeries. During that time, Paul had to be a single father to Michel. He felt he was managing well, until Serge and Babette came to visit one night.

Babette spotted the dirty clothing and mess in Michel's room and downstairs both she and Serge tried to convince Paul to let Michel stay with them during the difficult time. Paul found out from them that they had visited Claire earlier, so he wondered if this had been his wife's idea or something Serge and Babette had suggested. Babette asked Paul why he wouldn't let Michel visit his mother but Paul told them Michel didn't want to and he didn't want to force his son. Babette told Paul Claire was worried her child had forgotten her.

A smell erupted, then: the macaroni was burning. Paul felt so furious that he threw the pan at Serge to the point where he bled messily. Michel saw it happen.

Back at the current dinner in the restaurant, dessert is served. Babette is not happy with her berry dessert and asks for it to be taken back. Serge tries to calm her but they get into another fight. Serge apologizes to Claire and Paul, saying that they had meant to come to the restaurant to discuss what to do about their sons. Babette starts to cry again.

They begin to speak about the crime their sons committed. Serge says that after he and Babette spoke to Rick, they discovered Rick is battling with the incident and it's affecting his academic achievements. Paul wonders if the same is happening to Michel but realizes that it isn't. Serge says Rick's future is the most important thing on his mind and he can't live with what happened or how the truth of the murder might crop up in future. At the word 'murder' Claire argues, saying it was an accident. Serge says that Babette doesn't agree with his decision but he has made up his mind: he is going to withdraw his candidacy.

Claire says he can't do that and they all need to make the right decision together because the incident affects them all. Claire thinks Serge is being selfish with his decision, making it all about him. Serge says if the boys do go to jail they will only get a few years based on the country's laws and then they can carry on with their lives. She thinks the incident will blow over, but Serge says his son won't be able to forget about it.

Serge says that he will have his press conference the next day where he will make his announcement, and he has to leave the restaurant now to meet with his director about the location of the conference. It is set to occur at the café across the street.

When Serge takes a call, Claire makes a big fuss of asking Babette what the time is (even though she can see it on her cell phone) and says she has to call Michel at home to let him know they won't be out much longer. Watching her as she speaks into the phone, Paul realizes that she is acting. She hasn't really called their son.

Paul recalls another incident from the past, this time when Michel had written a school assignment on capital punishment and the principal had been concerned about things he had written, so he had called Paul to the school. During the meeting, the principal said that he found it disturbing when Michel wrote about how sometimes the law needs to be taken in one's own hands. Paul defended his son by saying he helped him with the assignment, which then the principal queried further. This irritates Paul. Making matters worse, the principal asked Paul about his break from his career. He said he has information from Paul's psychiatric report about how the decision to work again is not up to Paul. This infuriated Paul and he punched the principal in the nose, then beat him up. The principal tried to scream for help from the window but Paul was on him again, hurting him further. Michel saw his father from outside and Paul tried to smile at him to let him know everything was okay.

Serge returns from his phone call and he and Babette leave. Claire and Paul agree they have to prevent Serge from holding the conference the next day. Claire tells Paul that if Beau had to tell the police that it was his brother and cousin in the footage, then things could get ugly. She admits she didn't really call Michel but only made Babette witness the fake call because Michel is really meeting with Beau and Rick to sort out the problem.

Claire tells Paul he must stop Serge but he says he can't because if he had to do something to his brother, the truth about his medication and illness would emerge. Claire leaves the restaurant.

A short while later there is chaos at the café across the street, with a stretcher being wheeled out of the door by paramedics. Claire is walked out by two policemen.

When Paul settles the bill, the manager tells him he saw Paul and his son speaking earlier. Paul pays the manager not to ever express what he saw.

Serge loses the election and ends up with ugly marks on his face from Claire's attack on him.

Beau disappears and this is what features prominently on Serge's and Babette's minds. Newspapers question if Beau had perhaps tired of his adoptive family or wanted to search for his natural parents.

That night after Claire is arrested, Paul finds the amniotic test results in a drawer. Although the reader isn't told what it says exactly, there are hints that it possibly states that Michel tested positive for the same illness Paul has. Paul recalls when Michel had been born and how everyone noticed the similarities between him and his son immediately. Michel then comes home and says that the 'Men in Black 3' video has been taken down from YouTube. He doesn't say exactly what happened, but it is clear that he and Rick had sorted Beau out.
Best part of story, including ending: There is lots of suspense in the novel; many twists and turns occur. When the truth about the teenagers' crime erupts, the reader expects their parents to shout at them or turn them into the police, so it is quite surprising when that doesn't happen.

Best scene in story: The best scene was the ending, when Paul discovers that his son inherited his disorder. Intriguingly, Michel doesn't spell out what happened with Beau and Rick. The reader is left with questions, but the one thing that is certain is that the problem has been sorted out, possibly violently.

Opinion about the main character: I didn't like how Paul was often irritable and annoyed by things in his environment. Violent measures he takes throughout his life are also disturbing.

The review of this Book prepared by Giulia Simolo a Level 1 Blue Jay scholar

Chapter Analysis of The Dinner

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Plot & Themes

Tone of book?    -   thoughtful Time/era of story    -   2000+ (Present Day) Kids growing up/acting up?    -   Yes Family, struggle with    -   Yes Struggle with:    -   Son Is this an adult or child's book?    -   Adult or Young Adult Book Age group of kid(s) in story:    -   high school Wild kid(s)?    -   committing crimes

Main Character

Gender    -   Male Profession/status:    -   teacher Age:    -   40's-50's Unusual characteristics:    -   Mentally ill


How much descriptions of surroundings?    -   3 () Europe    -   Yes European country:    -   Baltic States

Writing Style

Amount of dialog    -   significantly more descript than dialog

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Herman Koch Books Note: the views expressed here are only those of the reviewer(s).
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