Things started well. A narrator who may or may not have killed the husband of the woman he is having an affair with. This character, a doctor with a very dark view of the human race, cannot be fully trusted right from the start. Does the man he kills deserve it? Is there anyone we can really trust in the novel? Even the children?
Readers of Herman Koch’s wildly successful novel The Dinner know full well that the answer is no, we cannot trust anyone in a Herman Koch novel. But we can trust Herman Koch to entertain us even as he undermines everything we think we know about the world.
It all worked very well for over half of Summer House With Swimming Pool. I liked the doctor/narrator even as he cheated on his wonderful wife. The wives in Herman Koch novels really are very understanding people. The doctor is also very good with this two daughters, so he is sympathetic. Up to a point.
Actually, all the way through, even when he is cheating on his wife, even when he is killing his lover’s husband. I know what he is doing is wrong, stupidly wrong, but I still felt for him. To be honest, I even wanted him to kill the guy, a little.
This is why….
During a playful game of ping-pong, his lover’s husband threatens the narrator/doctor’s teenage daughter:
…He still pretended to be laughing, but it was no longer real–if it ever had been. “And you, you’d really better watch your step!” he said. As he said this he rose farther to his feet and pointed his index finger at my older daughter. At Julia.
Julia shrieked. “No!” she screamed. “No!”
And she grabbed hold of her red bottoms with both hands. Her bikini bottoms.
I saw it quite clearly. The gesture could be explained in only one way. Ralph Meier was threatening my daughter with something. He was threatening to do something. Something he had done before. All as a joke. All with a knowing wink. But still.
This is a classic bit of Herman Koch creepiness. I didn’t like Ralph before, but after this scene I was confidently in the narrator/doctor’s corner against him.
At 287 pages I would have loved Summer House with Swimming Pool. At 287 pages it would have been a tautly written thriller with economic use of character development. The twist would have come at just the right time to keep the pages flying by. But at 387 pages…..things just go on too long….events take too long to happen….the characters grow annoying when they could have remained sympathetic…the twists lose their impact.
By the end I really wasn’t paying much attention. I’m not exactly sure what happened. Rather, I know what happened, I’m just not sure what the character’s motivations were. Killing Ralph didn’t shock me or excite me the way the big finish in The Dinner Party did.
I was basically done with the book fifty pages before it finally ended.