Friday, November 5, 2010

Book Review: Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes

Title: Strangers at the Feast
Author: Jennifer Vanderbes
ISBN: 978-1439166956
Pages: 352
Release Date: August 2010
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Provided by: Crazy Book Tours
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Publisher: On Thanksgiving Day 2007, as the country teeters on the brink of a recession, the Olson family gathers. Eleanor and Gavin worry about their daughter, a single academic, and her newly adopted Indian child, and about their son, who has been caught in the imploding real-estate bubble. While the Olsons navigate the tensions and secrets that mark their relationships, seventeen-year-old Kijo Jackson and his best friend Spider set out from the nearby housing projects on a mysterious job. A series of tragic events bring these two worlds ever closer, exposing the dangerously thin line between suburban privilege and urban poverty, and culminating in a crime that will change everyone's life.

My Thoughts: Strangers at the Feast is the story of the Olson Family. The book centers around Thanksgiving Day as three generations have gathered to celebrate - Gavin and Eleanor, dad and mom to Douglas and Ginny, their adult children; Ginny, a professor of women's studies, is single, in her mid-thirties and has recently adopted 7-year old girl from India; Douglas, in his late thirties, works for a real estate development firm and is married to Denise, a nutritional supervisor at the local school. They have 3 young children and live in Greenwich, Connecticut. The story begins in Ginny's home in Westchester sometime in the late 1980s.

The point of view in the book is ever-changing, depending on which character is telling the story at the time. As a narrative tool, this can be effective but is often confusing, as well. Had the author used one omniscient narrator throughout, the story would have been more linear and cohesive. For example, Eleanor thinks about her marriage, her life as a wife and mother and worries about Ginny's life without a husband. Meanwhile, Douglas' thoughts are about his failed construction project and money, or, more to the point, why he doesn't have a lot of it and how to get more. As the story progresses it becomes increasingly clear that the members of this family don't know or understand each other. Though this results in a continually alternating focus and an uneven division of the characters' stories, it is an extremely effective means of emphasizing the distance between each family member and their confusion about each other and life.

With the Olson Family, the author has done an amazing job creating five entirely recognizable, three-dimensional adults. None of them may be you, but you'll still be able to identify all of them. Eleanor is a loving wife and mother whose greatest accomplishments are her family. The health and happiness of her husband, children and grand-children are what really matters to her and it's clear that Eleanor will do almost anything to keep her family safe. Ginny represents a younger, modern generation in which women have careers outside the family. She's an accomplished professor of women's studies always scoffing at traditional female tasks. Tasks that her mother, Eleanor, holds dear: cooking, cleaning, keeping house. Like everyone, the Olsons are not without their flaws, and some are more flawed than others. Gavin, once a light-hearted, fun-loving young man, went to war and returned from Vietnam withdrawn, resentful and tending towards the morose. He shows little interest in or love for his wife Eleanor or his children, and the strain in their relationships is palpable.

The other main characters are fleshed out just as thoroughly. Douglas, as a young man and barely out of college, was obsessed with money much to Gavin's dismay. His obsession has only grown as he made riches, then lost it all in bad investments. Now, the vexing question of why he doesn't have money and how to get a lot of it is all Douglas thinks about. His relationship with his wife, Denise, once the shining star in his life, has disintegrated to the point where they barely speak. Denise grew up poor and won't tolerate a life without wealth. She no longer trusts Douglas to provide her with the only thing that makes her happy.

What I found remarkable about this family was how little they know and understand each other. If I hadn't know better, I couldn't be blamed for thinking the Olsons were strangers meeting for the first time. Ginny and Douglas show no interest in their parents' lives. Neither Ginny nor Douglas asks their parents about their work, what they've been doing lately or how Gavin's job is. In fact, things are so disconnected that at one point, a story is relayed when Douglas asked Gavin for help but then became angry when Gavin asked him about how things were going in his life and why he needed help. Douglas is intensely interested in real estate so his sole care is in repairing the fixer-upper house Ginny recently bought, never mind that she doesn't want it repaired. Ginny, meanwhile, loves to lecture the family on the real Thanksgiving of Pilgrims and Indians, but Eleanor can't help questioning Ginny incessantly about the men in her life, determined to find her a husband as Gavin sits in the corner brooding, his resentment increasing by the hour.

Each individual family member's unhappiness is surpassed only by their fears, intense fears about issues ranging from health and safety to crime, being alone or being poor. The fear and unhappiness they carry inside them and the tension inevitably created by these negative thoughts reach a violent climax a little more than three-quarters of the way through the book with dire results. When things calm down again, as expected, some of the Olsons point fingers of blame at each other but the reality is that there's plenty of blame to go around. Each one of them could have prevented the tragedy that ensues but they don't do anything to help the situation.

Waiting more than half of the book for the conflict is a long time. A character study dominates the novel while the plot slowly develops. So what may be a lack of depth in the story is compensated admirably by a population of characters that are written with great detail as well as broad strokes, not to mention a lot of believability. The major problem with making the reader wait such a long time for the culmination of the stress and tension is that there is little resolution. The novel ends very shortly after the "explosion" and we are left wondering how the Olsons, who we've come to know well because the author has spent so much time and energy fleshing them out, deals with the tragedies aftermath. Simply put, we never really find out what the fall out is and what happened to each character. It seems a shame, unless the author is planning a sequel that picks up where this book left off, that we are left to wonder about each Olson member's fate.


  1., you covered it ALL:) Sorry you were not wowed by this one as I was.

  2. This book has been waiting on my TBR shelf for quite some time now. And I'm thinking it may wait a little longer ;). I'm still looking forward to reading it but now I'm a little wary of that character study since I'm not a fan of it if it takes too long. But you did a great job reviewing it, Amy!

  3. I read Diane's review earlier this week, and now with yours, I think this is a book I'd really like. The idea of characters study, then slowly developing plot appeals to me. Who knows, maybe there will be a sequel. Unfortunately there is a long hold list at my library, so I doubt I'll get to this before Thanksgiving.

  4. Talk about dysfunctional - that family sounds like they define the word. I'm planning to read this one next.

  5. I just picked this one up from the library yesterday. I'm a bit disappointed to hear that the characters' fates are left up in the air but I will read it with an open mind.

  6. I had read Diane's review and was really excited by this book. Just goes to show why it's a good idea to multiple reviews before you decide whether or not to pick up a book.

  7. I've heard nothing but raves about this book ... you're the first one who wasn't just gushing about it. I'm very intrigued by this and think I have to read it ... the author's approach to writing it seems quite unique.

  8. I loved this book. Perhaps I was more tolerant of the set-up since I knew up-front that "something" was going to happen. But isn't that how it is in real life? Especially at a family gathering? There is all this lead-up and then Aunt Sue falls down drunk or someone's Uncle calls such and such an A-hole. There is all this slow build-up and then bam.

  9. BIBLIOPHILE by the SEA: No worries, I really liked parts of it. I'm glad you loved it!

    LILLY: The characters are very interesting, believable and unique. But just don't expect any of them to be very happy!

    JOANN: I wish I had the book to send you! I enjoyed the in-depth look at the characters and the slowly building plot. I just wanted more later. I'm looking forward to your thoughts about the book!

  10. BERMUDAONION: Dysfunctional to a T! It's kind of sad, really. I excited that you're reading it and will be watching for your review!

    KATHLEEN: I hope you're enjoying this book. There are some very positive reviews out there. I'm hoping but not expecting, a sequel!

    LISA: One of the things I really like about book dicussions and reviews is the varying opinions. Don't discount the book completely, it just wasn't one of my faves.

  11. JENNERS: Definitely read it! I'd love to see what you think of the story. I had no idea that it was being raved about. I am planning to read Jennifer Vanderbes first book, Easter Island.

    TI: You are quite right. All the friends and family hang out all day maybe drinking, getting more and more annoyed with each other and then Blamo! It seems most readers loved this book! Maybe it was too real life for me! lol

  12. Hi Amy,
    I just found your blog and think it is great. This was a very informative review; I have not seen other reviews, and based on your description, this probably one I will pass on..thanks for the review!

  13. What an in-depth review! Thanks for stopping by and commenting on mine! I don't know .. I think that the ending pretty much DID let you know what happened to the characters. I mean, not until they were old and gray, but .. everyone ended up in a different space than they were in before, and not necessarily in a good way. It definitely wasn't all stars and light, though! :) Thanks for sharing your review!

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

  14. I felt the same way you did about this book. It felt like a letdown at the end because things were kind of left hanging. You had some idea of what happened with some of the characters, but others you just don't know.