19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
The Olson family gathers to celebrate the Thanksgiving holidays at the home of one of its members, Ginny. Ginny has recently made some drastic changes to her life, adopting a daughter from India, buying a house and her decision to host the family for this event is surprising but seems to be in line with this new phase of her life. Her brother Douglas and his wife Denise are drowning in severe debt as a result of Douglas's over speculation in the real estate market that has now gone bust. So while they smile and put on an appearance for their children and the rest of the family, there is trouble brewing. And Ginny and Douglas's parents, Eleanor and Gavin, are dealing with their own loneliness as they were never very communicative with each other following Gavin's return from the Vietnam war. While the meal starts off at Ginny's house, they are forced to move to Douglas's house because Ginny's stove malfunctions. This simple act sets the stage for a tragedy and calls into stark focus the underlying issues that have long simmered below the surface.
From the synopsis of the book, I knew there was to be a catastrophic event that would rock the whole family. But because this part of the story does not happen till much later, I was able to focus on the excellent characterization of the family that preceded this event. It is in the description of the individual members of this family, their quirks and demons, their sympathies and triumphs, that the author really shines and displays her talent as a writer. The reader is able to delve into the lives of a complex and ultimately sad family. To call this family dysfunctional really does not do them justice as they are so much more and it cheapens and trivializes their true intricacies. Each member of the family harbors private concerns, pains and resentments that shape them into the people they choose to become. Ginny as the know it all college professor and generally unlikable daughter on the spur of the moment adopts a mute seven year old from India. While I could sympathize with almost all other members of her family, Ginny was the character I liked least. She spent her time throwing around her intelligence, constantly lecturing her family on every injustice in history and just being generally obnoxious. Her decision to adopt a child did not at all engender her to me as it was not well thought out and just seemed like a momentary emotion and a poorly thought out one at that. She always seemed to be caught up in displaying her supposed intellectual superiority that she rarely took a moment to examine herself and her motives. I never warmed to her and her thoughts on the last page further confirmed my belief in how shallow she was.
Ginny's brother Douglas was a sad character to read. Here was a man who both consciously and unconsciously lived to please his father and feeling like this was an impossible goal. But the more he tried, the more he seemed to drift away from and displease his father. Sadly, his father returned from the Vietnam war an uncommunicative and taciturn man who shut his wife and the subsequent family they would have out of his inner thoughts. By the time he realizes his love for his wife and his family, both they and he had grown used to his aloofness. Gavin's character was a sad character to read because the reader is privy to his feelings and thoughts and so sees him more sympathetically than his family for whom he is a distant figure inspiring fear, longing, exasperation but nothing outside of obligatory familial love. Eleanor his wife was the typical sixties wife who believed that since her husband worked hard, provided for his family, never brutalized her or her children, she would put up with his remoteness. The amalgamation of all these personalities leads to the family who we meet at the beginning of the story. The final crime that occurs during this family gathering is not as monumental as I had originally thought it would be but served as the catalyst that ignites tensions long held.
This story resonates the lack of communication that characterizes many of our lives. The stored up hurts that pile up over the years, the unspoken emotions, the remembered sins, unspoken praises, will in many cases produce individuals and families that navigate life in a maze, never acknowledging the underlying causes of various actions. This book is sad and I think most people will find it very depressing and may see the whole story in a negative light. But if one is willing to see beyond this, you will find a story that makes you ponder the complexity of relationships and their fundamental meaning.
*Review copy received from Simon and Schuster.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
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 recognition, 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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
American mythologizing of Thanksgiving is still perpetuated--the idea of goodwill between Indigenous Americans and European "pilgrims" and the lie that America was founded on cooperation and integrity rather than eminent domain and genocide. The myth of the first Thanksgiving shapes and parallels the thematic core of Vanderbes' new novel, a scathing, biting, and bitterly droll portrait of a suburban family that takes place on Thanksgiving 2007. It is no coincidence that Stamford Connecticut, the site of the massacre against hundreds of Pequots by Puritans (and the cause for the second Thanksgiving celebration), is the story's site of greedy real estate expansion and criminal expropriation under the deception of eminent domain and public safety.
On the one hand, this story of the Olsens can be read as a novel of a modern-day dysfunctional family in America. This includes a Yale graduate turned Vietnam vet (Gavin); Gavin's Wellesley grad wife, Eleanor, who spent her entire adult years as a housewife; their leftist academic daughter, Ginny, who majored in the history of the American family and who, as a single mother, adopted a mute, seven-year-old orphan from India; their son, Douglas, a real-estate entrepreneur on the verge of bankruptcy due to the subprime crash; and Douglas's wife, Denise, who escaped her blue-collar roots in Pittsburgh and desires a comfortable, upper-middle class comfort zone for them and their three children.
On the other hand, Vanderbes probes beneath the family itself and mines deep into the myths that underlie and underscore the American dream, as well as taking on issues of race, class, and the basis of war and the male warrior mentality.
The novel could be said to be a pastiche of Wharton, Franzen, Updike, Roth, Bellow, and other prolific writers of social criticism and the nuclear family. But Vanderbes puts her own thumbprint on this tragedy, especially with her creation of Eleanor Olsen. Eleanor is a shattering composite of strength and fragility, a fiercely loyal and upright wife and mother who is also a sad and fractured soul. There is a private moment between her and Gavin that centers on a singular opportunity for Eleanor to write professionally. It is so penetrating and heart-stopping that I had to put down the book and weep. Moreover, her palpable sense of exile throughout the story just blew me away.
"Her friend...noticed the same thing: this menopausal cloak of invisibility. They were a forsaken demographic...Still, she sometimes wished she had known that a time would come when the world would quietly brush her under the rug, suggest she kindly step out of its way."
As the family gathers at Douglas and Denise's McMansion in Greenwich, a crime invades their tenuous peace and shatters the shaky boundaries between the privileged and the poor, the dominant and the dislocated. And in this novel, the shock waves occur after the denouement. The climax is the cauldron and the anti-climax is the scorching segment of the story, the boiling spill that turns everything upside down.
This is a page-turner that reads like a domestic thriller. It isn't without its annoyances, such as Ginny's irritating and pedantic political correctness that borders on fanatic. However, the author has a purpose here and deals with it quite capably . Each person will surprise you; just when you think you are in-step with events and tuned into the characters, the narrative tilts and shifts you into a gear that simultaneously revs you up and brings you to a grinding halt. This is a savage must-read to feast on. The prose is tart; the words are edible.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Holidays can be a nightmare, especially when your family consists of a father who is a Vietnam vet, a mother who lives like a doormat, a brother about to suffer financial ruin (and his wife who is in deep denial), and your newly adopted mute Indian daughter. Nothing says fun like dysfunction, as Ginny soon learns. She attempts to have her family to her new home for dinner, but the plans go awry. They move dinner to her brother's house, and that is when it really hits the fan. The moral of this tale is, everything has consequences. Just ask Kijo and Spider.
What a rich and complex tale Vanderbes has told in her sophomore work. One would expect the author to be quite seasoned, given the sophistication of the writing in this novel. I absolutely loved the way each character's story unfolded, and how as the plot wore one, these stories intertwined. I felt as if Venderbes had left me literary bread crumbs, allowing me to find my way back to bits of the story that would make more sense later. It was simply brilliant.
I am a sucker for a dark. sardonic tale now and then, and I loved seeing those aspects at work in the book. There is a fair amount of satire and political commentary between the lines, as well as a stark picture of what many realities many families have faced in the 21st century, across different countries and socio economic groups.
All in all, probably not the kind of book you would want to give mom for Christmas, but an excellent read, one I think young twenty and thirty something readers will devour, and in which they will see many people they recognize, perhaps even themselves.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2010
As a mother, just reading the Prologue was a grabber. Not since The Shell Seekers have I read a family novel that was so true to life. The actions of one member of the family unwittingly bring this story to a shocking conclusion, but all that leads up to that point can be recognized by every reader.
Ms. Vanderbes has a way of making the characters seem like our own relatives, people we can relate to, but really don't want to be like. Think you can have a Thanksgiving dinner without a tv for the football games? The Olson family attempt at playing games in place of watching a sporting event is somewhat of a disaster. Do you remember the first Thanksgiving dinner you prepared? You won't forget this one. You could call it a movable feast. It really was!
There is everything in this book: career choices, love, failure, class distinction, adoption, cooking,--yet it all comes together in a well-written story that everyone who thinks their family is different should read.
In one sense, there are no strangers, really, at this feast. Just familiar human beings struggling to celebrate a tradition together.
I'm recommending this book to everyone who will listen. Well worth the read. I'm looking forward to Ms. Vanderbes' next book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2010
I enjoyed the book and after finishing it I was reminded of Mrs. Pontellier swimming out to sea after truly realizing her position and circumstance in life as was imposed by societal standards.
The idea of starting different chapters with characters as opposed to numbers or titles, made the book more personal. It worked better in my opinion, because the characters seem more real to the reader, as well as put the reader into a specific character frame when reading each chapter. It was as if you were reading a diary composed of different authors.
Secondly, the books' settings and character lives were realistic situations. For example, the professions are believable, as well as the lives they would lead today. They could be people you pass on the street everyday or the neighbor living beside you.
Davis is the father who survives Vietnam, only to return home to struggle to survive the rest of his life. Its nice to see his point of view recognized by the detective in the book at the end of the story. Elaine is the mother who devotes her life to taking care of her family only to be looked upon with pity from the children, friends and society. Although she attended and graduated college, she chose to be a mother and this is not an important profession. She is looked upon with contempt almost. You can see this when she places her viewpoint in the article only to have it refused within ten minutes. When you realize she doesn't want Ginny to know, it makes their story even more sad, in that both parents want their children to be proud of them. Davis sitting quietly, after reading Ginnys' article is another example of this.
I could go on and on, about what other insights the characters gave, but those were the two I will remember the most. If you have the chance, sit down and read this book, you won't be disappointed.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2010
Strangers at the Feast is a great read about the american family and society. Interesting and emotionally engaging characters and settings which bring together tragic events and aftermath and shed light on our capacity for compassion and introspection and making a life. A brilliant novel of contrasts and comparisons which are right on in capturing the squeeze in which our best intentions are just not enough to endure the happiness and fullness we crave as we grow our lives interwoven in family and our community.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2011
This book took too long to become interesting. The first 3/4 of the book was drudgery. About a third into the book, I started speed reading. I mean, skipping whole paragraphs. I'd slow down when I thought some important information was being revealed.
I wish Vanderbes had spent less time on the back story and more on the racial & economic tensions. I think her format of alternating voices for each chapter limited her from exploring the racial & economic inequalities in more detail.
If you're looking for a real page turner, look elsewhere.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2010
I loved "Strangers at the Feast!"
It made me uncomfortable at times but it brought me into the spell of this family and the slice of culture of the time and place.
I'm 4 hours into the audio version of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" and find that "Strangers..." is a much better example of the genre. Too bad Oprah didn't read "Strangers at the Feast."
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Strangers at the Feast tells the story of the dysfunctional Olson family as they gather for Thanksgiving dinner, 2007. Little does the family have reason to suspect that their day will end in tragedy. The three generations of family members consists of Gavin, quiet, aloof and a Vietnam Vet; his wife Eleanor ; their two children Douglas, (married to Denise with three children). Gavin and Eleanor's single daughter Ginger, an intellectual working in academia, is hosting the dinner in her newly acquired, but run down home in Westchester County, New York. She is also introducing her newly adopted, seven year old daughter, Priya, from India, to her family. Her daughter does not speak.
To get a feel for how dysfunctional the family is, I selected a few passages:
When Eleanor learns that her newly adopted granddaughter does not speak, her response is:
" She's mute? A single mother raising a MUTE seven year old from India?"
(Oh, Eleanor loved her daughter, but what a dung heap of liberation her generation had inherited. Ginny cared so much about her right to do things, she ignored the difficulties.)
Ginny's brother Douglas, a real estate developer, struggling with career and family, is obnoxious to say the least His thoughts about his sister:
(A mute orphaned child, a house without a television, a living room full of plywood furniture. Ginny's obsession with deprivation was like a bizarre medical condition.)
When a problem in Ginny's kitchen causes the family to move the Thanksgiving dinner to another location, Douglas' only thoughts were:
(He'd counted on stuffing, vegetables, dessert. Was this her plan? Deprive them of football and food and teach them some kind of history lesson?)
The plan now is to move Thanksgiving to Douglas and Denise's home in an upscale neighborhood of Greenwich, Connecticut. No one is prepared for what happens there.
MY THOUGHTS - I loved this novel. The story is constructed in such a way that the suspense begins to build early on. You know, and the jacket indicates, that something bad is going to happen --but you do not know what. The story is told in alternating chapters from the point of view of each of the family members, as well as by (2) outsiders not related to the family. The author, in my opinion is very talented, having created a story that draws you in from the beginning and never eases up. Each of the characters is dysfunctional, and by the end of the novel, you will feel like you know each of them, as if they had been part of your own family (at least I felt that way). It's one of those stories that sends a message, in this case: for every action, there is a reaction.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - I'll be talking about this one at this year's Thanksgiving dinner.