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Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

Did you read The Dinner by Herman Koch? I did. The writing thrilled me, and I was astounded at how this author could create such an atmosphere of suspense, and characters who felt so real - but were people you really did not want to know. The Dinner was the first novel to be translated into English from this Dutch author and I was excited to see another early this summer. Summer House with Swimming Pool seemed like the perfect book to read to start the summer – but I should have remembered the intensity of The Dinner and been prepared for what was to come from this new book.

We first meet Dr. Marc Schlosser who it turns out has a general practice – sees his patients for twenty minutes each – prescribes what they request and has a lucrative and busy medical office. What his patients do not know is how much he really hates them and their needy bodies. I found it disturbing to read of Marc’s disgust and wondered if there really are doctors who feel as he does about the human race – perhaps they are not all compassionate people who want to help relieve the suffering of others. I don’t want to know.

We also meet Ralph Meier, one of Marc’s celebrity patients, and one of the many artists who frequent Marc’s practice. Ralph is quite a well known actor and as many of Mars’s patients do, he invites Marc and his wife, Caroline, to an event where it is clear that Ralph is attracted to Marc’s wife – and Marc feels the same attraction to Ralph’s wife, Judith.

So, the scene is set. Ralph and Judith have rented a summerhouse in France and invite Marc and Caroline to drop in while on their summer vacation. Caroline is the most sensible of the lot and although flattered by Ralph’s attention has no desire to spend any time with him. Caroline would like to spend the summer peacefully camping with her husband and two young daughters. But Marc, along with his other emotional problems, has a bad case of lust for Judith and he is determined to find a way to manipulate the situation so that he can be with Judith.

So, we’re reading along, getting to know all of these characters in the relative innocence of the beginning of summer, but there is a sense that something is going to happen to disrupt this peace at any moment. I think, a messy affair with all of its messy debris. I was completely unprepared for what does happen and the subsequent fallout. Even Marc could never have imagined what would happen – more than once he asks himself at what point he “could have taken a different turn”.

None of us can know how we would re-act if our family were threatened. As Marc observes “at one moment you’re a family with two beautiful daughters” – and then you are not. It is the somewhat the same theme as The Dinner – where two sets of parents must take action to protect their children. Summer House with Swimming Pool is ultimately the same theme and two sets of parents are faced with the same dilemma in a completely different situation.

I feel some hesitation in reviewing this book – as I read I felt horrified that anyone could think and act as some of the characters in this novel do. By the end I felt as violated as the victim in the novel – well, nowhere near as violated really – but I did feel I needed to have a swim and wash this book away. I then needed to read a light inconsequential book to get the taste of this one to recede. I know there are many readers who read books I would find far too disturbing – I sell a lot of books I know I would not want to read. Summer House with Swimming Pool is so well conceived, plotted and written that you wonder at how Herman Koch does it – just moves it forward bit by bit – until before you know it you are in the middle of a tragedy that has some characters reeling and others trying to cover their tracks and survive without detection.

Read it at your peril – you’ll not forget this novel – even if you think you might want to.

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