STRANGERS AT THE FEAST by Jennifer Vanderbes

Book Quote:

“When she lay in bed at night, looking back on the past year, she realized the loss of all that money and the prospect of her children growing up poor had terrified her more than the ghastly scenarios described on the news. And Douglas seemed more afraid of screwing up their finances again and of her walking out on him than he was of terrorists.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill Shtulman  (NOV 24, 2010)

Let me say it straight out: this book is astoundingly GOOD. Page-turning, jaw-dropping, laugh-out-loud, cry-into-your-sleeves, gasp-with-recognition GOOD. It takes on nothing less than the theme of what is wrong with America today and it does it very well.

The action takes place over one Thanksgiving day with lots of flashbacks. There hasn’t been a family like the Olsons since Zoe Heller’s The Believers – with a dollop of the movie Pieces of April blended in. This family DEFINES dysfunction.

Gavin, the father, is a Vietnam vet whose career went wildly off track because of the anti-war sentiment when he returned. His wife Eleanor is a Wellesley graduate who traded in ambitions for an apron and a cookbook. Douglas, their older son, cashed in on the real estate boom – making him more successful than his old man ever was – and is now suffering the effects of the crash. His wife Denise – a one-time poor girl who has become enamored of the money – is less than enchanted with him. Ginny, the academic daughter, is emotionally closed-off and has recently adopted a 7-year-old Indian daughter, Priya,

Add to that two 17-year-olds from the housing projects – Kijo and Spider – who have a personal grudge against Douglas and break-in and enter his home while they’re temporarily away – and you have the makings of a potentially tragic situation.

The author, Jennifer Venderbes, has a clear understanding of the human condition. Her dialogue is crisp, compelling, and pithy. There are little gems throughout this book. For instance: “Men didn’t have heroes, they STUDIED heroes, as though greatness and masculinity could be transmitted through reading, as though knowing the lyrics to every Mick Jagger song…got them one step closer to playing Madison Square Garden. A woman, at most, would dress like the woman she admired…”

There is much about the emasculation of the American warrior (Ginny is writing a paper on it), and how Vietnam was directly responsible for this phenomenon; this emasculation will show up time and time again. There is much about eminent domain and how it plays out in the real world, particularly with race relationships. There is much about how we – as Americans – have lost our sense of values and have substituted it with worship of money and status.

But the book is never preachy or never pedantic. It’s filled with smart conversation, convincing characters, compassion and insights. Portions will make you laugh with acknowledgement, other portions will break your heart. In a way, this is a portrait of the “every family.” You won’t soon forget the Olsons or the world that Jennifer Venderbes has so expertly created.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 46 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner; 1 edition (August 3, 2010)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Jennifer Vanderbes
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
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November 24, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Family Matters, NE & New York

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